Preventive – not corrective – plans will help cut staff absences

To formulate a plan to cut staff absence rates a lot more effort needs to go in to understanding reasons for staff "sickness"

educing staff absences within the public sector will feature prominently in any efficiency drive introduced by the new government. Apart from cost, absences place added pressure on colleagues and disrupt care plans.

As part of the work that I undertook aimed at reducing absenteeism within a social care service – which significantly exceeded the rate of other directorates – four major factors were identified that distinguished the social care workforce from other functions of the council:

● The workforce was predominately female.

● The average age was older than that of other directorates.

● The directorate had a policy that prevented someone who was recovering from an infectious illness from working with vulnerable clients until they had been symptom-free for 48 hours.

● The provider services where largely 24/7.

These factors influenced the probability of someone needing to be absent from work. Understanding them would inform the development of plans that could tackle the problem.

An Office for National Statistics study has found that lone mothers had the highest rate of sickness absence, and men without any dependent children had the lowest.

There is clearly a need and an opportunity for local authorities to work with other employers of significantly female workforces to commission affordable and flexible services to help women fit any caring responsibilities around work.

Although considerable investment has been made in developing childcare services, they will often not accept a child showing any symptoms of an infection – including a cold – and schools are increasingly likely to close in bad weather.

I also found that although the number of people on long-term sick leave was small they accounted for 40% of the days lost in the social care service. In the main, these days were lost to people recovering from surgery or undergoing treatment for cancer; conditions whose prevalence increases with age.

As these conditions cannot be prevented by the employer the most effective way to reduce days lost to long-term illness will be to facilitate earlier returns to work.

I also found that a residential unit in which the staff drew up the rota had a lower rate of absence than similar units in which the rota was fixed or issued by the manager. Although further enquiry into the reasons for this would be helpful it is possible that staff were able to fix shifts around their personal circumstances; it may have also given them more ownership of their work pattern.

An organisational approach also needs to be taken to looking at ways of reducing absence. At the most obvious level an unhappy team is likely to have more sickness than a happy team.

Procedures that delay a return to work for people who have been off with an infectious illness could almost double the time that people need to take off sick, unless other duties can be found for them.

The government’s fit-note system, under which GPs specify what tasks people can do rather than simply sign them off sick, was introduced last month. This could provide an incentive for councils to look across all of their services for roles that could be covered by someone who is well but unable to resume their usual duties. Apart from reducing the sickness rates, gainful employment can help people recover and could perhaps also offer a useful career development opportunity.

In conclusion, by undertaking a more detailed analysis of the composition of the workforce and employees’ work and personal circumstances, it is more likely that preventive – as opposed to “corrective” – strategies will be identified to cut sickness absence.

Geoff Ettridge is an independent adviser on care services

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