Social workers on sick leave could be forced back into work before they have recovered by the introduction of “well notes”, according to unions.
From this week, doctors in England, Wales and Scotland will issue “well notes” instead of sick notes, offering guidance on whether employees can phase in their return to work with additional support such as reduced hours or workloads.
The government believes the measure will save the economy £240m over the next 10 years by cutting staff absence rates, but social workers’ unions warned that it may prove to be detrimental to the well-being of practitioners.
Roger Kline, social care spokesperson for Aspect, said: “Although the new policy gives GPs and employers more flexibility, the real risk is that staff will be forced back to work when they are still ill. This is particularly dangerous in occupations where staff mistakes can have serious consequences for other people.”
A spokesperson for Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers in the UK, said the new arrangements could benefit workers who are recovering but not able to return full-time.
However, both Aspect and Unison raised concerns that the approach would not tackle the underlying problems behind the high levels of stress and depression in social work.
“For social workers, if the work has caused the sickness absence through stress, depression or work overload, a phased return won’t help,” the Unison spokesperson said. “It is the workplace itself that needs to change, but the GP will have no control over that.”
Kline said it was essential for employers to tackle the “workplace causes of absenteeism – such as excessive workloads, stress, concerns about job security, bullying”. The requirements on employers in England to carry out workload “health checks” would be a good starting point, he added.
However, the Chartered Management Institute, which has 86,000 members in the UK, said the initiative would improve employees’ transition back into work once they have recovered.
Chief executive Ruth Spellman said: “The ‘fit note’ should be viewed by social workers as a positive measure and not, as is feared by some, a way for employers to force people back to work too soon.
“It will enable employees who are suffering from illness, stress related or otherwise, to obtain guidance from their GP as to what support they need, meaning their eventual return to work is less daunting and that any issues which may have lead to their absence are resolved prior to their return.”
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