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Doctors obstructing employers' legal duty

Media statement

Wednesday, March 24th, 2004

Doctors obstructing employers' legal duty

GP's are compromising the ability of employers to manage their legal obligations under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 2003, the Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern) says.

In his address at the association's 8th Annual Health and Safety in Employment conference tomorrow (March 25th & 26th, Stamford Plaza, Auckland), EMA's Manager of Occupational Health and Safety, Paul Jarvie, will discuss the dysfunctional way doctors have been managing patients who may be suffering from stress.

Stress and fatigue were included as workplace hazards for employers to mange when the new HASE Act came into force last May.

"Under the new Act employers have to proactively identify stressors in the workplace that could lead to employees suffering from the effects of stress and fatigue," Mr Jarvie said.

"But the OSH division of the Department of Labour won't accept stress itself as a medical condition.

"Doctors are acting like gatekeepers authorising people to take leave from work, at the employer's expense.

"Individuals have not uncommonly returned from a visit to their GP authorising them to take off anything from three weeks to three months on stress leave.

"It's not uncommon for an employer to tackle an employee over a performance issue only to find their GP puts them off work for stress leave the same day of their performance review meeting.

"Since stress is not a condition in itself, we have to ask: 'What is the medical condition that has been identified?'

"Employers are flummoxed. They're the meat in the sandwich between the medical profession, the Human Rights Act and the Privacy Act.

"It's not enough under the HASE Act for employers merely to identify stressed employees in the workplace. They cannot meet their legal obligations by sending employees on courses on stress management.

"Doctors rarely give a definitive diagnosis or outline patients' concerns on the medical certificates they issue. But employers are legally bound to ascertain the true medical status of their employee and their prognosis.

"A medical certificate that states simply a person is 'off on stress leave' does not assist employers address the workplace conditions that may be leading to stressors in the workplace.

"From OSH they need a specific diagnosis from a GP that says: 'my patient considers the following workplace issues to be the cause of their stress'.

"The medical profession and employees have an obligation to objectively measure and quantify workplace demands before labelling them stressful.

"A medical certificate that outlines possible workplace causes, hours of work, unreasonable work load and so on, would go a long way to assist employers carry out their duty under the HASE Act.

"The least that doctors seeing a patient who might be suffering from a stress-type condition should do is phone a patient's employer with consent of the employee to discuss the issue."


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