Earlier this year, a leading healthcare insurance provider carried out research and found that the nation's employees made no fewer than 22 million requests for doctors' sicknotes every year.

While it was not clarified precisely what proportion of those requests was refused, the feeling of most employers will be that it will not have been many at all.

The research also discovered that as many as nine million of the 22 million requests might be seen as suspicious and that up to three million workers confessed to making false requests for sicknotes.

Many employers will recognise that many sicknotes these days are issued for conditions such as stress, depression or nervous debility; conditions which themselves are not clinically well-recognised, but which often have no external symptoms.

This makes it difficult for a harassed GP always to carry out a full and probing examination in the ten-or-so minutes allowed for each patient consultation. In short, these conditions are relatively easy to fake.

Employers commonly feel that once a GP has issued a sicknote, there is nothing more to be done. They feel concerned that an attempt to communicate further with the absent employee will be construed as harassment and that the balance of power very much rests with the employee at this stage.

In most cases, this will be true but, where an employer has genuine and reasonable grounds for challenging a sicknote, then he may by all means do so. He may require the employee to submit to a second opinion, perhaps from the company doctor or, in the case of a stressed or depressed employee, from an appropriately qualified psychiatrist.

He may reserve the right to withhold sick pay in circumstances where there is doubt that the sicknote is appropriate, or he may ask the employee to explain any actions that cast doubt on the truthfulness of the certificate.

He must, however, act carefully and reasonably.

An unreasonable challenge to a genuine sicknote is likely to sour the working relationship and is potentially grounds for a claim of constructive unfair dismissal.

* Stephen Elliott is a solicitor in the employment team of North-East law firm Ward Hadaway. He can be contacted on 0191-204 4000 or by email at stephen.elliott@wardhadaway.com

Published: 16/11/2004