York Council is extending the trial period for a sickness absence initiative where employees telephone medically qualified occupational health nurses when they cannot attend work due to illness.
Provided by Active Health Partners, the scheme was introduced to Adult Services in September at a time when the 1,000 strong department was recording an average of 28 days absence per employee each year.
Despite a lack of support from trade unions, Ken Green, head of HR, remains adamant that scepticism surrounding the scheme will disappear over time.
“The telephone survey the company undertakes with people returning to work gives very positive feedback on their experience,” he said.
“The service is not intended to replace the GP, but gives an additional benefit to employees by providing them with proper medical advice as soon as they fall ill,” he said.
“The trained nurses will sometimes advise people to immediately seek further medical advice from the GP where this seems necessary from the symptoms they describe.”
The council is extremely keen to portray this as an additional benefit for employees, and Alison Loveday, head of the employment department at lawyers Berg and Co. can see similarities between this provision and that of occupational therapists or on-site medical staff. However, she believes such arrangements are less “intrusive” than York’s approach.
“The scheme does not appear to be linked to sick pay entitlement,” she notes, “so it may not be regarded as a change in the fundamental terms of employment.”
As such, Loveday believes it is a matter of personal opinion as to whether the new procedure is either viewed as interference with the employee’s right to deal with their health issues however they wish, or as the act of a good employer offering a useful resource comparable to that provided by NHS Direct.
“The nurses have no access to the employee’s case history and would not be able to pass on any information about the employee without their express permission,” she says.
The trial has delivered a moderate improvement to absence levels at the council. Days lost per employee still increased from August to September this year, but at a smaller rate than in previous months, and days lost to short-term sickness fell from 43 per cent to 34 per cent over the same period.
However, the most useful aspect of the initiative for Green and the council is the level of information the telephone line now delivers to the organisation.
“One of the significant benefits of this scheme is the building up of much better and further information relating to people on long-term sickness absence,” explains Green.
“Active Health monitors and follows up on all absences and provides automatic referral for those on long-term sick leave to occupational health services.
“This allows the council to intervene much more rapidly to support people back to work, and gives fast, up-to-date information to allow managerial decisions to be taken to help people back to work earlier,” he explains.
“This is not just targeted at short-term absences,” says Green. “It provides a much more sophisticated monitoring process, better analysis of absences and trends and up to the minute information to inform further interventions.”
The trial will continue for another three months.