Britain's doctors believe that more than four out of ten of the 22 million sick notes they are asked to sign each year are either questionable or totally bogus but blame the attitude of employers for the number of spurious requests.
Research by healthcare research firm Dr Foster for insurance company Norwich Union suggests that back pain is the most common excuse doctors hear, followed by ‘depression’ and ‘workplace stress’.
The average doctor gets 577 requests for sick notes annually from employees who have been off sick for more than seven days. With 38,000 GPs in the UK, this adds up to a total of 22 million requests.
Doctors say that almost a quarter of the requests - about five million - are questionable at best. A further fifth - almost four million - are definitely bogus.
Workers who are ill are normally given a week's grace, known as self-certification, after which they must obtain an official note from their doctor.
More than seven per cent of the 1,000 workers quizzed as part of the survey also said that they would consider asking their GP for a bogus sick note. Twice as many men as women said they would cheat the system.
It is estimated that people " throwing sickies" costs the UK economy more than £4 billion annually. Yet separate research has found that more than eight out of ten employees admit to faking an illness so that they can take a day of work.
The survey found that the circumstances in which workers said they would consider asking for a bogus sick note included a personal crisis they were too embarrassed to tell the boss about; difficulties at work; the refusal of a holiday request; fatigue.
But many GPs blame employers for the number of spurious requests and claim that firms could slash absenteeism by offering staff more flexible-working hours and better support in the workplace.
Dr Ann Robinson, one of the GPs questioned, said: "GPs want to treat genuinely ill patients and don't want to act as policemen, identifying those who are claiming bogus sick notes.
”Employers need to be more flexible with their workforce and hospital services need to provide fast-track diagnostic and treatment centres so people can get back to work as quickly as possible."
The British Medical Association (BMA) complained that employers often flout the seven day rule and ask for sick notes after three or four days. Some also force staff to obtain a retrospective sick note when they have recovered, which the BMA says is a particular waste of doctors’ time.
The BMA has called on the government to investigate whether responsibility for sick notes could be moved away from GPs.
"The BMA does not believe that sickness certification for employers is a role for GPs and is one that could be better managed by occupational health services, freeing up GPs' time to care for patients requiring treatment,” a spokeswoman said.