Background GPs can find their role as issuers of sickness certification problematic, particularly in trying to maintain a balance between certifying absence and preserving the doctor-patient relationship. Little research has been published on consultations in which sickness absence has been certified. Aim To explore negotiations between GPs and patients in sickness absence certification, including how occupational health training may affect this process. Method A qualitative study was undertaken with GPs trained in occupational health who also participate in a UK-wide surveillance scheme studying work-related ill-health. Telephone interviews were conducted with 31 GPs who had reported cases with associated sickness absence. Results Work-related sickness absence and patients' requests for a 'sick note' vary by diagnosis. Some GPs felt their role as patient advocate was of utmost importance, and issue certificates on a patient's request, whereas others offer more resistance through a greater understanding of issues surrounding work and health aquired through occupational health training. GPs felt that their training helped them to challenge beliefs about absence from work being beneficial to patients experiencing ill-health; they felt better equipped to consider patients' fitness for work, and issued fewer certificates as a result of this. Conclusion Complex issues surround GPs' role in the sicknesscertification process, particularly when determining the patient's ability to work while maintaining a healthy doctor-patient relationship. This study demonstrates the potential impact of occupational health training for GPs, particularly in light of changes to the medical statement introduced in 2010. © British Journal of General Practice 2010.