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14.06.13

Mental health increasing cause of sickness absence

GPs need more training to make better use of the fit note system, new research from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and the University of Liverpool shows.

The study, conducted for the DWP, found that over a third of fit notes are issued for mild-to-moderate mental health disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression. 41% of such fit notes were issued in more socially deprived areas, compared to 31% in less deprived areas.

Patients were also almost five times more likely to receive long-term (over four weeks) fit notes for sickness absence if they lived in socially deprived areas. Younger people and women were more likely to receive a fit note for a mental health condition, but elderly people were far more likely to receive a long-term fit note. Men were 72% more likely than women to have a long-term sickness absence.

The new system is having a positive effect in reducing long-term sickness absence but researchers highlighted considerable variation in how GPs use the new option.

Nearly 12% of all patients received at least one fit note which advised that they ‘may be fit for work’.

Jim Hillage, director of research at IES and one of the authors of the report, said: “Most people who need a fit note get one lasting four weeks or less. However, about one in five sickness absence episodes, last for over 12 weeks and 4% last longer than 28 weeks. Older people, males and those living in areas of social deprivation are the most likely to have a long-term sickness episode.

“Although the proportion of longer-term medical statements seems to be falling, long-term sickness absence is still a significant problem for individuals, their employers and the economy.

“While there is some evidence that the introduction of the fit note is starting to have a positive effect on long-term sickness absence, our study suggests that with further training and guidance for GPs, particularly in relation to mental health disorders and work, the effect could be even greater.”

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