Government plan to tackle ‘sick note culture’ is bad news for mental health

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Health Assured team

02 May 2024

The government has announced plans to strip GPs of their power to sign people off work as part of a wider strategy to tackle what Rishi Sunak calls the UK’s “sick note culture”. The announcement has drawn widespread criticism from healthcare professionals, occupational health providers, HR consultants, and the wider public.

In the same week that the ONS once again warned about the number of people being driven out of the labour market because of ill health – a record 2.8 million adults - the Prime Minister has decided to make it harder for people with disabilities and those suffering from mental health conditions to obtain a sick note and therefore access a fundamental part of the welfare system.

According to NHS data, the number of sick notes issued by GPs has increased significantly over the past few years, from 8.7 million in 2021 to 11 million in 2023.

Mental health conditions were the most common cause given by doctors for ordering patients to take time off work, appearing on 1 million notes. As organisations, we need to understand people’s individual circumstances and have robust policies in place that proactively deal with physical and mental health challenges, rather than shifting the blame on those who are ill.

It takes courage to ask for help if you are struggling with mental health issues. Visiting a GP may be a last resort for some, so investment is needed to support people. A GP is an essential and trusted part of seeking understanding about their condition and negotiating pathways to diagnosis, support, and medication to help with their recovery and return to active employment.

We must confront the fact that the UK is increasingly in poor health and that is not good for business, economic prosperity, and society as a whole. Over 1 in 6 people suffer from mental health problems at work and 17.1 million working days are lost to stress, anxiety, and depression every year – costing the UK economy an estimated £100 billion.

The Prime Minister seems to believe his words have an air of motivation for those who are unable to work, although the backlash that has followed proves his words did the exact opposite with disabled charities branding his announcement, ‘a full-on assault on disabled people’.

He then went on to say that the benefits system had become a ‘lifestyle choice’. This particular statement has drawn a host of criticism as for many people the benefits they receive offer a lifeline - now more than ever before.

To negate this ‘lifestyle’ choice the PM announced that those who are deemed ‘fit to work’, although he did not specify the parameters for what ‘fit to work’ are, would only be eligible for benefits for 12 months before they would no longer receive them if they failed to take up a job within this time frame.

Unfortunately, the current news cycle is far from cheery with headlines often reading; recession, cost of living, or insecure job market, to name a few.

The introductions the Prime Minster has proposed to make will cause more harm than good as people who are not fit enough to work will force themselves into a role that they are ill-equipped to carry out, further exacerbating existing health issues.

The job market is at the worst it has been in decades meaning for some people securing a job role within 12 months may not be feasible. But whether they have made a real effort or not they will no longer receive financial support after 12 months.

The cost of living crisis has meant the number of people facing financial insecurity has increased over the last four years, especially those on the benefits system, this measure is bound to worsen this issue for many. 

For example, students are applying for roles for 18 months on average before they land one. Following three years of mentally and physically draining study. Students should feel relief when they throw their hat at graduation not left with a niggling anxiety that they will be left with no money if they can find a job within the allocated time frame.

Today's announcement is problematic in more ways than one and has welcomed the criticism for the right reasons – employers have a duty of care for their employees and as leaders, we should take the correct steps that put people first.

Read our guide on mental health sick leave here: Mental Health Sick Leave


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Our EAP service provides guidance and supports your employees with their mental health in the workplace and at home. 

We support your employees' mental health and wellbeing with any problems they might be facing in their professional or personal lives with our 24-hour counselling helpline.


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