If an employee has been signed off work by his or her doctor for a particular period can the employer allow the employee to return before the end of that period?

When an employee has a fit note that states that he or she is not fit for work, the employer can allow the employee to return to work before the expiry of the period covered by the note but should not do so without taking steps to ensure that this is appropriate.

There is no option on a fit note for a GP to advise that the employee is "fit for work", and it is not necessary for an employee to be "signed back" to work by a doctor. It may be that the employee has recovered faster than expected, or the employee may suggest some adjustments that the employer could make to enable him or her to return to work, eg on different duties. If an employee wishes to return to work before the end of the period covered by the fit note, the employer should discuss this with him or her and satisfy itself that returning to work will not exacerbate the employee's illness, slow his or her recovery or put other employees at risk. The employer should keep a record of the discussion and the reasons for its decision. The employer should consider carrying out a risk assessment before allowing the employee back to work; this may be required under the terms of its employer's liability insurance.

If the employer is unsure whether or not it would be appropriate for the employee to return, it could ask him or her to return to the GP who may provide a fit note indicating that the employee "may be fit for work" with certain adjustments to his or her duties, hours or workplace.

Employers should ensure that employees do not feel under pressure to return to work before they are fit to do so. There is a risk in allowing an employee back to work when he or she is signed off as not fit for work: if the employee finds that his or her condition has worsened as a result of the early return to work while certificated as unfit, this could result in a personal injury claim against the employer.