Achieving a healthy workplace in social care

The public sector has higher sickness rates among staff than the private sector. How can this be turned around, asks Mark Hunter

Staff absenteeism in social care is notoriously high. With the absence rate in the public sector running at about three days a year more per employee than in the private sector, it is health and social care employees who regularly top the lists of those in the public sector most likely to take a day off sick.

Last year’s Absence Management survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that health, care services and housing association staff had the highest rates of absence within the public and voluntary sectors.

The CIPD suggests that high rates of public sector absence may be due to the size of the organisations (large organisations tend to report high absence rates than smaller ones), the employment of larger numbers of women and older people than in the private sector, and differences in “management culture” between private and public sector employers.

Legitimate reasons

There are also some entirely legitimate reasons why social care staff should take more time off sick than people in other jobs. Nick Johnson, chief executive of the Social Care Association, points out that social care staff have a greater responsibility to ensure that they do not come into work while infectious.

“There’s a big difference between coming into work with a cold when you work in an office than if you are working with vulnerable people,” he says. “And there’s the fact that social workers simply do have very stressful jobs.”

Indeed the CIPD survey ranks work-related stress as the number one cause of long-term absence in non-manual workers. Among public sector workers, workload and management style were cited as the most common causes of stress while voluntary sector staff rated organisational change as a particularly important cause.

Fragmented workforce

Johnson also points to the recent “fragmentation of the social care workforce” that has added to the pressures placed on care staff.

This chimes with a recent Unison survey of 3,500 UK local government staff in which 80% of social workers faced increased work pressures this year compared with last.

On average, social workers worked 12% more hours than their contract specified, and 61% said they had experienced abuse by a service user, a quarter had experienced physical abuse by a client, and 30% said they had been bullied in the workplace.

So what can be done to make the social care environment a more healthy place to work?

The SCA and National Care Forum has produced guidelines on improving staff well-being in the workplace.

“It’s basically about providing good leadership,” says Johnson. “You need to create an environment where the whole team feels well supported and valued.”

Early intervention

Arbitration organisation Acas has also outlined the key indicators of a healthy workplace (see box above) and emphasised the importance of early intervention and quality line management.

“Line management is central to how people develop at work, their well-being and resilience, commitment and productivity,” says Acas head John Taylor.

“Good line managers are role models in today’s modern workplace. Line managers increasingly play a vital role in developing and supporting learning at work and they are at the heart of effective stress, conflict and absence management.”


Staff well-being

Ensuring the well-being of staff in your organisations should involve the following measures

● Providing access to well-being support for all employees. This should be free, available within working hours without penalty, and delivered by personnel with specialist training.

● Recognising a right to personal privacy. Staff should not be required to disclose personal information.

● Confidential counselling should be available for all employees suffering from serious work-related problems.

● Good work should be recognised by public praise.

● Employers should provide professional supervision and continuing professional development.

From National Care Forum


A healthy workplace

Key indicators of a healthy workplace, include

● Line managers are confident and trained in people skills.

● Employees feel valued and involved in the organisation.

● Managers use appropriate health services (eg occupational health) to tackle absence and help get people back to work.

● Managers promote an attendance culture by conducting return to work discussions.

● Jobs are flexible and well-designed.

More at ACAS

This article is published in the 9 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Happy and healthy workplaces

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