Get well soon or else

Our newspapers love to climb on to their high horse about
something, and sick leave in the public sector is a particular
favourite. From bedridden train drivers playing squash to sick
social workers going shopping, it’s an easy, emotive story
guaranteed to get readers’ nostrils flaring.

Unfortunately, an exclusive new Community Care investigation
will provide more grist to the indignation mill. A poll of 100
councils in England has found that last year 20,000 local authority
social services staff were signed off work for two months or

There is a rather tired old mantra that working in social care
is extremely stressful. And, in January, a study of more than
25,000 employees in 24 occupations found social work at the top of
the stress league, scoring highly on poor psychological well-being
and physical ill-health caused by stress. Lack of support and
resources, emotional exhaustion and never-ending change are all
additional factors.

But there is another tired old mantra that says “if you can’t
take the heat, get out of the kitchen” and too many employers
appear to accept it. If more attention were given to reducing
caseloads and providing staff support, stress would be less of an
issue to begin with. And, quite apart from the additional pressure
placed on colleagues, prolonged periods away from work are hardly a
lasting remedy. What happens during those two months? Does the job
become less stressful? Does the person learn to cope? If not, why
should the situation be any different when the person returns to

Whatever your personal take on it, this is an issue that has
dogged social services for too long and needs to be tackled
urgently. Apart from those already mentioned, solutions include
rewarding staff with the lowest absence rates, offering routine
sabbaticals or introducing formal flexiwork arrangements, which
have succeeded in cutting sickness and absenteeism in some

The danger is that, without a concerted effort from the sector
itself, the government may simply take matters into its own hands.
There was uproar in January when a House of Commons committee
condemned “unacceptable” levels of absenteeism in the Prison
Service and recommended docking £60m worth of sick pay.
Judging by the findings of our poll, social care could well be next
on the hit list.


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