Can an employee return to work before a fit note expires?

The short answer is yes! One of the purposes of a fit note is for the GP to communicate with the person’s employer about their current health status and if they are fit to return to work or if they are fit to return to work with some adjustments or support in place.

An employee can return to work before the fit note expires, if they feel well enough to do so, and the employer is satisfied that the risks of an earlier return to work are low. In many cases, there are unlikely to be significant concerns with an early return, especially if the role is office-based and the health condition is not serious or not likely to impact on or be impacted by the work. In cases where safety issues need to be considered (e.g. when working at heights, operating machinery, or working with vulnerable people), the employer may wish to obtain occupational health advice to understand the medical situation, possible implications of an earlier return and to confirm fitness to work.

If an employee asks to return to before their fit note expires, we recommend that you have a conversation with the employee to understand their current health status, identify possible risks of an earlier return, and identify any mitigation measures before deciding if the individual and the organization are both comfortable with the residual risk level of an earlier return. In order to help you make this decision, consider the following factors:

Potential Risks

Health complications

If the employee returns to work before they have fully recovered, there is a risk of exacerbating their health condition or delaying the healing process, which could lead to prolonged illness and potential complications. This could affect the employee’s well-being and ability to work in the long run.

Reduced productivity

An employee who has not fully recovered may experience reduced productivity as they may struggle to perform their duties effectively. This can affect both the individual’s work quality and overall productivity and morale of the team.

Increased likelihood of re-injury

Depending on the nature of the illness or injury, returning to work prematurely could increase the risk of re-injury, especially if the workplace conditions are not conducive to the employee’s recovery.

Impact on co-workers

A sick or partially recovered employee may be more susceptible to spreading illness to co-workers, which can lead to increased absenteeism among other employees and a potential decrease in overall morale.

Legal and safety compliance

Employers may be subject to legal and safety regulations regarding the fitness of employees for work. Allowing an employee to return before they are medically cleared could pose legal risks and may breach health and safety regulations.

Workplace accidents

Depending on the nature of the employee’s work and their health condition, returning too early may increase the risk of workplace accidents, potentially resulting in injuries to the employee or others.

Mitigation of Risks

To mitigate the risks it is important that employees follow their health care provider’s advice in regards to their recovery plan and are compliant with treatment, and for employers to consider both the well-being and safety of their staff. Sometimes the longer an individual is absent from work, the harder it is to come back, and in some cases (particularly with mental health cases) being back at work, even in a reduced capacity, can help reduce the risk of their mental health deteriorating further.

Open, honest communication between the employee and employer is key to ensure a safe and smooth return to work. Employers should also be fully aware of and comply with relevant employment laws and regulations related to health and safety in the workplace. It is recommended as part of the conversation with your employee that you go through the potential risks of an earlier return, as well as any actions that could be taken to reduce those risks, and that these are documented as part of the return to work plan.

For many individuals, the risk of an earlier return to work is low and common sense can be applied. For those cases where the health condition is more complicated, more likely to impact on, or be affected by work, or for considerable safety risks, you may wish to obtain further advice from your occupational health provider, or call us for no cost telephone advice.