Under the weather

Credit is being bestowed on Lincoln City Council at ConservativeHome for their success in reducing sickness absence from a peak of a fairly astonishing 18.2 days per member of staff in 2002-3, to a target-busting 8.7 days a year for the financial year just ended. The Editor has written to the Leader of the Council to ask how this was accomplished. Knowing a little about this I can offer some insights into what the response might be, although of course things may look entirely different from within the organisation as against how they appear from my perspective.

The first thing to say is that while sickness levels in the public sector are quoted as an ‘average’ per member of staff, and that’s a useful measure, it doesn’t give you a very good feel for the reality. 18.2 days looks like a prodigiously high number, and indeed I can’t imagine how it could be thought acceptable or how exactly it happened. It is very unlikely, however, that it was composed of some people taking 20, and some taking 16. More likely that among Lincoln Council’s staff there were a couple of dozen who were effectively absent because of some long-term illness for the best part of the year (sickness measures include those who are no longer being paid sick pay), and the remainder were off for something closer to the overall average of 9 days. Whatever the case, one would want to ask some fairly searching questions, but they are clearly different problems requiring different solutions.

Ordinarily, one would expect Lincoln to outperform on sickness – as a District Council it does not employ many of the staff members in whom the problem of long-term sickness tends to arise most frequently: firefighters with injured backs, teachers and social workers with nervous breakdowns, and so on. Similarly, short-term absence is often very high in social care for old people, simply because if I have what most of us would call “a bit of a cold”, it can still be too great a risk to go into a frail old person’s home and give them what might in their case be a much more serious infection. On the other hand, they do have a greater percentage of public-facing staff who might be expected to pick up more ‘bugs’ than an office worker. You can see a breakdown by department here (pdf). Interestingly sickness levels in the planning team are falling, and in the revenue team they’re rising – perhaps that’s not surprising given the economic climate! 

Without wishing to detract from Lincoln’s undoubted achievement, there is also the problem of mean reversion. While sickness was a staggering 18.2 in 2002-3, it was consistently around 11 days in 2000-1, 2001-2, and 2004-5, 2005-6, and 2006-7. I believe (I’m open to being corrected) that the Conservatives took control of the Council in 2007, so while sickness levels were still unacceptably high, they had already been brought down some way, whether by the law of averages, or by people taking action, from the bizarrely high numbers of 2002-3. Councillors have been actively involved at both Cabinet and Scrutiny level in leading and monitoring the ongoing work to bring these numbers down further.

A number of things were done in Lincoln with the aim of reducing sickness absence, and I’m not sure they all make comfortable reading for those who believe that the problem is skiving, or that the solution is a harder line from managers. I suspect some will, and some will not. 

  • HR policies around equalities were strengthened, to ensure that if people developed a disability it did not prevent them working for an extended period of time if there was a way of helping them continue in their role, as well as monitoring the casues of accidents and stress more closely.
  • Managers were encouraged to become more active in helping or disciplining, as appropriate, those employees whose absence was the result of misusing alcohol or drugs.
  • The Council also acted to speed up the resolution of disciplinary and grievance proceedings where “off sick” was being used as a euphemism for the real situation.
  • Absenteeism in previous employment was given greater prominence in the recruitment process in an attempt to reduce the number of people being brought into the organisation who were likely to prove ‘bad risks’ in terms of absence.
  • Managers were trained in ’emotional intelligence’ so that they could offer more tailored support to staff where sickness absence appeared to be becoming a problem, and a ‘third eye’ approach adopted so that managers could have a colleague to call on to look again objectively at a problem situation.
  • The function of occupational health workers was promoted more actively, ensuring that staff who were off sick for an extended period of time attended interviews focused on getting them back to work.
  • More was done to encourage recognition of those staff with an exemplary attendance record.

Now, think what you like about some of it – I can hear the cries of “occupational health? non-job” in my ears now, and as for rewarding people just for turning up and doing the job they’re employed to do in the first place, shocking! But there we are, one way or another it appears to be working. Contrast this with some truly bizarre decisions around sickness – I know one (Conservative as it happens, but I doubt this has come from the Members!) council which has decided that if office staff are too ill to make it to work they are now to be banned from working from home, on the premise that “you are either ill or you aren’t”. That might, just about, be fine if people have flu (though I’d have to be iller than that before I stopped at least picking up my office e-mail), but what if you have a broken ankle?

For the record, my maths says I have had 6.5 sick days in the last three years, although I’ve had some other persistent issues which have meant taking occasional scheduled time off during the day for medical appointments, for which I have happily (from my perspective) not been required to use holiday allowance.

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One response to “Under the weather

  1. Happy Homeworker

    In my last HR job in the public sector, I had on average 50 sickness management cases in hand – in the private sector you would normally have a handful. The reasons for the higher sickness rate in the public sector are various, but in my experience these are the key ones (I would include genuine occupation related injuries, but you’ve already alluded to that):

    1. manual workers will, in some cases, use up their paid sick pay so they can manipulate their pay for the purpose of claiming benefits – this is a little known fact
    2. over generous sick pay which does not exist in the private sector
    3. a (mistaken) belief that if they stay off sick for a year, they will get ill health retirement and release of their pension

    There are others, but these were the main ones I came across. Occupational Health wasn’t hugely helpful because, just like GPs, they just took the employee’s words at face value and parrotted it back. I think that may have changed a bit now and generally things have tightened up.

    Sickness in the private sector is much lower because if you’re off too long, you don’t get paid. Money is a big motivator – if the public sector cut sick pay or even made it discretionary it would find sickness reducing.

    But the key, as you correctly identify, is management. People go sick more frequently if they think no-one notices – managers have to get engaged and nip things in the bud. I used to scrutinise the stats and ring the managers. My most ridiculous sickness reason? PMT – over three months almost all the staff in a home went off sick with PMT. The manager (who must have encouraged this practice, tacitly or not) was told in no uncertain terms that if all the other female employees could make it into work at the “time of the month” so could all her staff. It stopped immediately.

    Having said all that, some people are so conscientious you have to stop them coming back to work too early!

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