Why this GP wants employers to stop asking for medical certificates

Why this GP wants employers to stop asking for medical certificates
  • PublishedJune 3, 2024

Most Australian workers are “national system employees”, meaning they are covered under national workplace laws such as the National Employment Standards (NES).

Workers covered by the NES can be asked to provide evidence to their employer that they are genuinely entitled to their sick leave, such as a medical certificate or statutory declaration.

Importantly, under these rules, employers are entitled to ask for evidence even if the employee is taking one day — or part of one day — off work.

Workplaces’ polices can vary, so if you’re unsure about what’s required, you should check your contract, award, workplace agreement or with your employer.

Why employers want to see your medical certificate

From an employer’s perspective, asking for a medical certificate can deter misuse of sick leave entitlements, says Carys Chan, a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour and human resources at Griffith University.

“If they’re going to be paying their employee for their sick leave, some of the employers will feel the right to know that you’re really sick,” she says.

“[For] people who are working in retail or frontline customer-facing [roles], if they’re not at work, it could be quite disruptive to the workflow.

“There are costs involved because someone else has to step in and you have to make some last-minute changes.”

A portrait of Dr Carys Chan, a lecturer at Griffith University. She's smiling while standing in front of a lush garden.
Dr Carys Chan says many employers want proof when their employees take time off work.(Supplied)

Why Amantha doesn’t ask her staff for medical certificates

Amantha Imber is an organisational psychologist and CEO of Inventium, a workplace consultancy business based in Naarm/Melbourne.

Dr Imber has a trust-based policy with her team of 10. When people are sick, they are not expected to provide medical certificates.

“We hire people that we trust, we treat them as adults. If they’re saying they’re sick, they’re sick,” she says.

One issue for employers is how easy it is to get a medical certificate online, with some businesses providing them for a fee, sometimes $15 or even less, without an in-person appointment.

“Even if you are a company that doesn’t necessarily trust all its staff, it’s also very easy to get a medical certificate without even being sick, which defeats the purpose of why you would ask people to get a medical certificate,” Dr Imber says.

Amantha Imber smiles while leaning on chair. She's standing against a colourful background and wearing a purple blouse.
Trust-based management approaches can help employers retain talent, Dr Imber says.(Supplied)

Balanced approach is best, RACGP says

Nicole Higgins, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), says employers “need to get the balance right” when it comes to medical certificates.

“Medical certificates are legal documents and play an important function; however, I encourage employers to be mindful of whether they are setting the bar too low,” Dr Higgins says.

“While asking someone to produce a certificate may seem like a straightforward request, we don’t really want people requesting certificates for minor ailments that keep them off work for a couple of days. That is not a good use of a GP’s time or the patient’s time.

“It is not ideal to have people sneezing, coughing, and wiping their nose in our waiting rooms either. 

“The expansion of telehealth has been very helpful in this regard, but it’s not for everyone, and some consults do require a face-to-face appointment so we can see what is going on.”

Should medical certificates be required only for longer absences?

If someone is taking more than a few days off work, Dr Imber says there may be a good reason for a manager to gather information, and that could include asking for documentation such as a medical certificate.

“If someone is off for more than a few days, [as a manager] you generally want to understand what is going on,” she says.

Max Mollenkopf estimates he sees two or three patients each day at his GP practice in Mulubinba/Newcastle who don’t need treatment but require a medical certificate for work.

For employees, a trip to the doctor for a medical certificate can be time-consuming and costly, especially if your appointment isn’t bulk-billed. 

Meanwhile, these appointments can take clinical time from people who are genuinely sick, Dr Mollenkopf says.

“If someone is sick and they want to see me, every day of the week I want them to be able to come in,” he says.

“I didn’t sign up to do medicine to do HR policy on behalf of large corporations.”

Do you need a medical certificate to take time off work?

While some employers rely on a trust-based system, many Australian workers are required to provide documentation even for brief periods of paid sick leave, such as time off work for a cold.

The United Kingdom has a “self-certification” system where employees do not need to provide documentation from a doctor or healthcare professional for absences of seven days or less.

Dr Chan says Australia could benefit from a similar system but suggests three to five days would be more appropriate time frame.

“I think the time is right. I know for a fact that big organisations are already having that in place,” she says.

Dr Mollenkopf says such a system would free up valuable time for GPs and their patients.

“The people who want to get their 18-month-old in who’s got an ear infection, they’re now having to go to the emergency department or find an urgent care centre or go through all these other steps because there’s an employee sitting there getting a piece of paper to keep their employer happy,” he says.

The ABC approached the Australian Medical Association, but they declined to comment for this article.


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