Getting Brent council staff back to work

Brent Council was suffering from ‘sick borough’ syndrome and had one of the worst sickness absence records in the public sector… until it devised a new absence management policy, that is. Alex Blyth reports.

The business

Brent Council is a medium-sized local authority in London. It has 3,000 staff who work in areas such as social care, environmental services, housing and centralised administration. Some are office-based, but many work in the field. There are 45 staff in the HR department.

The challenge

In 2003, Brent had one of the worst sickness absence records in the public sector, with staff taking an average of 12 days off per year. The HR department worked out that, based on the number of staff and the average salary, this was costing the organisation around £5m per year.

There were also additional costs to contend with as well.

“We often had to hire temporary cover,” explains Pat Keating, Brent’s employee relations manager. “It did nothing for the public’s impression of us, and was usually seen to be indicative of deeper problems. It disrupted projects and made it harder for us to deliver our services to the public. It was also damaging to the morale of those who do turn up for work.”

The solution
Keating decided to do something about the problem in mid-2003.

“We have limited resources, so trying to tackle it all in one go wouldn’t have worked,” she says. “So I took a few simple, steady steps at a time.”

Her first step was selling her mission to the corporate management board, which comprises the chief executive and the directors of the council’s service areas. She outlined the problem, put forward her solution and gained their commitment to the project.

Keating then spent a year developing a new policy on sickness absence. It took this long because she was careful to gain the agreement of every stakeholder at every stage, and consulted with union leaders and key senior managers until there was complete agreement.

The resulting document, launched in April 2004, spelt out the council’s absence policy in clear language, covering both short-term and long-term sickness absence.

For short-term absences, there are three stages. Once an employee has been absent on at least three occasions for a total of nine days in a year, they are at stage one, and will have a formal meeting with a manager to discuss the illness, and agree improvement targets for the following three months.

If these targets are not met, managers move on to a second meeting, and a new round of targets. If these are not met, then stage three is triggered. This involves more serious action, which could involve redeployment, counselling or termination of employment. Individual managers do not have to apply this process if they do not feel it is appropriate.

However, long-term sickness is more of a contentious issue.

“Often, we’re dealing with people who are suffering from chronic illness, and so the decisions are tough,” Keating says. “However, our staff are now pretty experienced at getting it right. We use case meetings with the employee, manager and an occupational health specialist to decide the best course of action.”

Keating also ran three-hour training sessions for departmental managers to filter this approach through to their teams. Some departments invested in more extensive training, and all managers had a one-day workshop on how to run difficult meetings about sickness absence.

The IT department also improved the council’s HR monitoring system, so that managers could track the attendance of individuals, and HR could analyse it to see where best and worst practice was occurring.

The outcome

In 2004, Brent Council staff took an average of 11 days off sick, and in 2005, this fell to 8.59 days. This put Brent well ahead of the 2005 London local government average of 10.6 days off sick, and of the country-wide local government average of 11.6 days.

The council estimates that the reduction in sick days has saved more than 1m a year. “This is a great boost to our reputation among the public, and our staff,” says Keating.

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Employee perspective

Margaret Read is the head of revenues and benefits at Brent Council. She is in charge of a team of 120, which collects council tax and administers housing benefit. Brent took the function back from a private contractor in 2003, and inherited chronic rates of sickness absence.

“They were averaging 18%,” says Read. “This was a major problem because we needed people here to clear backlogs and implement a major change programme.”

She jumped at the opportunity to pilot the new absence policy and procedures.

“Having clear trigger points for action really helped us,” she says. “We also managed to shift the cultural emphasis from looking at individual cases to considering what the organisation needed to function.”

Absence rates have since plummeted to 4%, and Read reports that this has allowed her department to clear a significant backlog of benefit applications.

If I could do it again…

Keating identified two things she would change if she started the project again.

“First, I’d like to increase the level of HR support. It was just me and around half a dozen others. With more resources, we could have achieved our goals much more rapidly.

“Second, I’d like to have done more training with managers. If we could have given them more than three hours they would’ve had a much clearer understanding of how to manage the process.”

Guide to effective absence management in 10 steps

  1. Have robust policies in place covering absence management, work-life balance, health and wellbeing, and stress management.
  2. Make your procedures clear and ensure every employee knows at what stage action will be taken.
  3. Use accurate recording systems to provide managers with regular reports highlighting trends and patterns.
  4. Conduct return-to-work interviews after all absences. Use them to identify the causes of sickness and the support required.
  5. Develop the skills and confidence of your managers in managing absence.
  6. Analyse data to identify and address the main problem areas, and set and review targets for improvement.
  7. Refer cases to occupational health where appropriate.
  8. Offer a range of options for returning to work, including flexible working arrangements.
  9. Revisit, review and refresh your policies and procedures on a regular basis to avoid apathy and complacency.
  10. Underpin all of this with an organisational culture of positive attendance and effective people management through regular communication with employees.

Ann Southworth, senior business manager at Capita HR & Payroll Services

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