What does off work indefinitely mean?

In this guide, we will discuss “what does off work indefinitely mean”, how is a fit note useful, what is the role of your GP, how does your GP assess your ability to work and some additional considerations.

What does off work indefinitely mean?

If you have been signed off work indefinitely might have been after your GP or hospital doctor has assessed and determined that your recovery will require more time but your physician is not quite sure about how long so it can sign you off work ‘indefinitely’.

You have probably been signed off work for a few weeks even months and now your doctor has decided to sign you off work with an ‘indefinite’ status due to a serious medical condition or mental illness.

Since the year 2010 (CBS News), Doctors no longer had to write our ‘sick notes’ for employees “who feel they have to stay away from work for health reasons and start writing ‘statements of fitness for work’.

The fit note will now be used to define whether an employee should stay away from work and is eligible to receive Statutory Sick Pay.

The biggest change here was that employees were no longer signed off as fit for work, but as may be fit for work, with detailed provisos about what the employer needs to do for them when returning to their job duties.

This included changing/modifying their daily duties or a change in the number of hours worked. 

As they have indicated “It may mean that an employee, who has taken seven calendar days off work, should make a phased return to work, gradually increasing days back or taking on more duties over a period of time.”

You may be worried about losing your job because you have been signed off work ‘indefinitely’, unsure what the next step is or what are your rights if your employer is thinking about firing you.

There are six known grounds under which employers can be legally entitled to sack employees, and one of the most significant from an ill-health dismissal point of view is ‘capability’.

So, let’s start talking a bit more in-depth about ‘fit notes’ and how they are supposed to help employees that are too unwell or physically unable to perform their job duties. 

How can a fit note help me?

A fit note is considered a ‘key tool’ that is meant to help you improve your health and wellbeing.

It is designed to help GP’s provide fitness for work advice for patients and it has certain benefits such as:

  • Effectively managing your expectations about your capability for work.
  • Give a clear clinical assessment to patients about the impact of your condition on your fitness for work.
  • Improve the likelihood of patient’s to keep their jobs, discussing ways you would be supported at work by your employer.

What is the role of my GP?

Every GP is able to provide simple fitness for work advice to aid the patient’s in their recovery and help them return to work.

It is then up to you and your employer to discuss the advice and suggestions made by your GP.

GP’s seem to be happier with the ‘fit note’ that was launched in April 2010 to replace the old sick note.

They have manifested that it had helped patients make a phased return to work.

It has also helped them to guide discussions with patients about their fitness for work, including challenging some of their perceptions around their fitness for work.

If you’re planning to go on a maternity leave from office, learn what to say to your doctor to get signed off work while pregnant.

Do I always need to get a fit note?

So you have had your appointment with your GP and he/she assesses your condition but they decide your fitness for work is not impaired by your actual health condition.

In this case, you are fit for work and you do not need a fit note. 

In addition, you do not need a fit note for the first seven calendar days where you have reported being sick. This period is ‘self-certified’.

However, if your GP assesses your condition and he/she determines your health condition affects your fitness for work, then they will issue a fit note indicating whether you are not fit for work or may be fit for work.

How does my GP assesses my fitness for work?

Your GP will assess your overall or general ability to work and not job-related ability.

There are several factors that they may consider when making the assessment:

  • If you have any functional limitations. For example, your stamina appears to be better in the morning than in the afternoon, you have reduced mobility, your agility is compromised, cognitive abilities reduced, etc. 
  • The duration of your health condition and any likely fluctuation.
  • The impact of any ongoing clinical management.
  • Whether doing any work, meaning not only your current job, will make your health condition worse.

Can my employer fire me due to long term sickness?

This is a very common question that many employees fear. It is common to think employers need to keep a sick employee’s job open indefinitely but in practice that is not the case.

However, the employer needs to follow a fair procedure to manage a long term absence situation or someone that has been off work under an ‘indefinite’ status.

If your employer proceeds with a dismissal, they will potentially have to show that your dismissal was justified and fair after exploring and exhausting all the options available to you.

Even if you have a disability (physical or mental) and you are currently being protected under the Equality Act, it doesn’t mean that they are unable to take action. 

As ‘First Practice Management’ indicates,  “A person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long–term adverse effect on that person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, typically lasting, or can be expected to last 12 months or more.”

Your employer must demonstrate that they have taken all the steps to facilitate your return to work, including looking at alternative duties, hours, roles, etc., when possible.

Termination on the ground of ill health

If you have been dismissed on the ground of ill health and you consider it has been an unfair dismissal then, an employment tribunal will consider if your employer has followed an appropriate procedure and would suggest considering some of the following:

  • Ensure your absence has been dealt with in accordance with their absence policy or procedures.
  • They have consulted with you and kept in touch regarding your condition and the possibility of you returning to work.
  • They have received a report from a medical practitioner with your permission.
  • After receiving the medical guidance, they have reviewed your role and your individual capabilities and they decided whether adjustments could be made and they have evaluated the possibility of another job you could do. “A tribunal will look at if there have been any offers of alternative employment”.
  • They have carried out a risk assessment based on the information you have, involving their employee. 

NOTE: “Alternatively, after following the guidance above, in the event that no return to work date is foreseeable or suitable alternative employment cannot be found or reasonable adjustments or modifications to the workplace are not practical or possible, termination on grounds of ill health may result.”

Can I get compensation?

If you feel you are too unwell to ever go back to work for your employer and you decide you are ready to go, you may be able to discuss with them some form of ill health dismissal compensation.

This in a term, can provide you with a financial ‘aid’ until you feel well enough to work again or find alternative employment.

As Rachel Lachey from ‘MoneyWise’ indicates, “Your employer might be more open to this than you expect. Not only does it remove the risk of a tribunal but it saves it going through the lengthy and difficult process of terminating your contract.”

So in the end, it may not be such a bad idea to consider getting into an agreement or settlement with your employer to avoid the exhaustion and expenses from going to court due to unfair dismissal. 

Why is this blog about ‘what does off work indefinitely mean’, important?

As we saw when answering ‘what does off work indefinitely means?’, employees and employers may worry alike.

Employees may think they can lose their jobs due to an ‘indefinite’ status and employers may think it is bad for business since they may have to keep paying someone for a job they are not doing.

However, remember that getting a fit note from your doctor if you have been feeling unwell is needed if they consider you need time to get better, recover or even start some treatment.

But also be aware that having a long-term illness and not being able to return work because you no longer can keep performing your duties can lead to a termination of your contract. 

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about what does off work indefinitely mean

How long can a GP sign you off work for?

You can be signed off work by your GP as long as he/she considers necessary so you can get well or feel better.

However, you can self-certify the first 7 days and after it, you will be required to get a sick note or fit note from your GP.

What is classed as long term sick?

To be classed as long-term sick an employee needs to be off work for four weeks or more.

However, employers know that long term sickness can be very costly not only financially but in terms of reduced performance.  

What is an indefinite leave of absence?

An indefinite leave of absence may depend on the guidelines and procedure policies established by a company.

For instance, you could be entitled to an indefinite leave of absence if after a certain amount of time after having definite leave due to a prolonged illness (really depends on company policies).

Can Doctor sign you off for stress?

Yes, a doctor can sign you off for stress. If you feel stress is too overwhelming and you are struggling to cope then it is recommended to set up an appointment to go see your GP and be honest, clear and as detailed as possible about why you are feeling stressed, especially if it is related to work.

Will my doctor give me a sick note for stress?

Your GP or a hospital doctor can give you a sick note for stress but since stress is not considered a mental illness or a disability then, they have the final word on whether they should give you a sick note (fit note) to be signed off work with stress.


Getting the most out of the fit note. GP Guidance. Click here.

Goldsmith, J. (2010) Sick Note Given Indefinite Leave of Absence. Retrieved from Cbsnews.com.

Buck, E. (2014, Feb.) Can an employer dismiss an employee due to long-term sickness?. Retrieved from Firstpracticemanagement.co.uk.

Lacey, R. (2013, Nov.) Are you too ill to work? What are your rights?. Retrieved from Moneywise.co.uk.