The simple request for a sick note can disguise important medical, psychologic or social issues. Disability may be influenced by social and cultural factors as well as by patient expectations. Assessment of impairment and subsequent disability is best made on the basis of objective data by use of a biopsychosocial model to ensure that the expression of disability does not mask other unaddressed psychologic or social issues. Enabling prolonged disability in such a situation can be a dysfunctional physician response to a maladaptive process. The physician's role is to treat the condition, to fulfill the appropriate role of patient advocate, to facilitate health (including resumption of activity), to offer proactive advice on the basis of prognosis, to be familiar with the patient's social obligations and resources and to provide education about the therapeutic benefits of returning to optimal function. This factual, medical-based approach offers an effective preventive strategy that will save many patients from unnecessary disability and morbidity.