How does a sick note work?

Important advice on how to deal with a fit note.

First published on Wednesday, Jun 24, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, Nov 03, 2021

The sick note for work—it’s famous in the world of employment. But not many of us (employers and employees) really understand how they work.

So, yes, employees and workers can take time away from work if they get sick.

But it’s a bit more complicated than just phoning in ill. And the employment law of sick notes is important to know.

The good news is we’ve got you covered. We have sick leave and lateness software to help you keep track of your employees.

And there’s also this guide, in which we explain some important information about this famous note.

Sick note rules—an employer’s guide

There are some basic rules you must respect. But you may have some questions about a return to work sick note.

For example, how many days off work before you require a sick note. Simply put, if your employee is off sick for seven days or more in a row, they need to show you proof of their illness.

The seven days must be in a row and they must be on sick leave. The consecutive day total also includes your standard non-working days. That’s weekends and bank holidays.

They need to get a sick note (also called a “fit note”) from their doctor.

Once they have it, they must hand it over to you. It’ll explain the nature of their illness, confirming they’re off sick due to a real health issue.

In rare situations, such as with the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, staff can get an “isolation note”—to do this, they must do this online from NHS 111.

What does a sick note include?

Remember—when you receive the note, that doesn’t mean your employee is back to full health and raring to go.

It just covers an overview of your employee’s physical or mental health. And you can expect information such as:

  • The doctor’s recommendation.
  • Whether their condition will affect their working performance.
  • If they’re fit enough to return to work.
  • How long, roughly, until the staff member can return to work.

If your employee is ready, or almost ready, to make a return to their role, then you can talk them through potential arrangements.

You may need to take reasonable measures to adjust for them.

Can you challenge a doctor’s sick note?

Yes, to some extent. As a business, it may not come naturally to respond positively to an employee’s sick note.

If you’re busy, an extended illness can make life difficult for you and the affected employee’s colleagues.

For example, if you receive a work-related stress sick note. And the doctor explains the employee should remain off work for an even longer period.

So, can an employer override a doctor's sick note? The government says yes, the note isn’t legally binding on you.

However, this doesn’t mean you should immediately force your employee to resume working.

Instead, consider other options to help them return to their role at a less stressful rate. For example, you could offer:

  • A phased return, such as a gradual increase of working days.
  • To alter their working hours on a daily and weekly basis.
  • To change their daily tasks, so they aren’t unnecessarily pressured.
  • Some workplace changes to help them as they go about their duties.

How do sick notes dates work?

The note will include information on when the employee will return to work.

This may be a specific date or a more general consideration. If the employee recovers before the estimated date, they should update you and return to work as normal.

If they need any reasonable adjustments to the workplace before they do, they should provide you with adequate time to make them.

What happens if you don’t receive a sick note?

If an employee is not providing a sick note after more than seven days of sick leave, then you may have the right to withhold contractual sick pay—or statutory sick pay (SSP).

You can write a letter to your employee requesting a sick note. In this, you can outline the legal requirements.

As well as how providing the note will ensure the employee receives their sick pay.

If you still don’t receive it, and you believe the employee isn’t ill, then you can withhold SSP.

That’s until the employee can satisfactorily confirm they’re ill—or they return to work.

How to tell if a sick note is real

Believe it or not, but you can receive fake sick notes for work. A reason for this may be as an employee wants to cover up for not really having an illness.

It’s good business practice to respect your employees when they hand over a sick note.

Don’t automatically assume it must be fake.

However, if you’re suspicious in any way then there are steps you can take. 

Forgeries are often convincing, as modern technology allows for accurate replications. Other employees may buy them online.

The approach you can take is to look for inconsistencies in the note you receive. There’s the chance of basic errors and unconvincing use of language.

Signs such as that may indicate the note is fake.

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