Those pesky ‘Stress’ medical certificates


Challenging the ‘stress’ Medical Certificate

Those pesky medical certificates… When your employee shows up with one leg in a cast and a medical certificate stating ‘unfit for work’, most of us would accept that without question, right?
It’s obvious. It’s visible. We also know that there are invisible illnesses, too. Stress being one genuine example.


There’s a ‘but’ coming… I’m sure many of our readers have experienced that ‘yeah… right’ sensation, when you have a disciplinary or performance management meeting scheduled. On the day of the meeting you receive a scanned and emailed medical certificate giving the employee two weeks off, and citing ‘work-related stress’. I accept that there are times when it is genuine, but it’s sometimes just a delaying/obstructing tactic no doubt often inspired by an advocate or representative.

Why Bother?

There is a significant difference between a non-specific diagnosis of ’stress’ and the much more specific ‘work-related stress’. And so lately I have embarked on a personal mission (I nearly said ‘crusade’, but I’m learning) to challenge the issuing medical practitioner to clarify, explain and support the use of the words ‘work-related’. As you can imagine it has been a somewhat turbulent ride. I don’t think your average GP is used to having their opinion questioned except perhaps by another medical professional. Certainly not by a mere mortal HR specialist.
I think the current vernacular is ‘pushing back’, and I use the Workplace Health and Safety Act (‘WHS 2015’) to help me on my mission.

WHS Act 2015:

When someone as authoritative as a general practitioner cites in writing on a medical certificate the words ‘work-related stress’, under WHS2015 the employer is now:
  1. Formally aware of an alleged health and safety issue in its workplace,
  2. Required to carry out some form of investigation to establish whether there is in fact a work-related stress issue,
  3. Required to swing into action on the investigative ‘identify-eliminate-minimise’ process.
Obviously a key component of that process is to examine and confirm the authenticity of the originating information.

The Challenge:

So, in the last 12 months or so, and when appropriate, I have immediately written to the GP concerned, citing WHS 2015, and providing a form to fill in (and return) which asks the following questions:
a)     Obviously, you will have discussed with <employee name> and received input on his/her personal state of health. Apart from and in addition to that, what other sources of information regarding <employee name>’s specific workplace assisted you in coming to your diagnosis of work-related stress? Examples could be that you have visited the site or spoken to other employees at the same worksite.
b)     Please detail the specific experience and qualifications you have in the diagnosis of occupational or workplace stress that assisted you in coming to your diagnosis that the stress <employee name> is experiencing is caused by, or emanating from, his/her specific workplace?
My letter explains why I need this information (the need for an investigation based on the diagnosis), addresses the issue of patient confidentiality, and cites the Act.


The Reaction:

In the 2 most recent instances where I have done this, if have:

1. Received a dressing down over the phone (of the ‘who do you think you are?’ variety) accompanied by a withdrawal of the medical certificate and a replacement issued simply stating ‘unfit for work’, and
2. Received the same variety of dressing down over the phone, but the return of the form with the answers on the form being (a) ’nil’ and (b) ’none’, and with various indignant written comments scratched out but still visible.
In the 2nd telephonic dressing-down instance,  I was accused of (1) ‘only doing this for legal reasons’, and  (2) ‘you know full well that my diagnosis was given on the basis of a 10-minute patient consultation’. Well, (1) legal reasons are good reasons, and (2) I fully agree, and I think that’s an own-goal comment?
It’s a good job that, having been so long in HR, I am used to being spoken to by angry/indignant people and not easily deflected from what I need to do.



You may ask ‘what are you trying to achieve Steve?’. Well I think it’s just too easy for the employee to get a medical certificate, suggest that its work-related stress, and for the GP to acquiesce and issue a medical certificate saying that.  I think that if more of us in HR realise that GPs are human just like the rest of us, that their information comes mostly from the patient alone, and that like the rest of us their opinion is open to being challenged and is not an absolute, GP’s might be a bit more circumspect in dishing out medical certificates citing workplace stress, and understand and appreciate the impact on the employer that those certificates can have.


I will now don hard-hat and flak jacket, hunker down in the trench and await incoming fire from the medical profession…
Cheers all


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