How I made a difference: absence management

Grimsby College is a large further and higher education institution with 1,400 employees, many of them part-time, and some of them overseas.

In 2001 we were losing 10,000 working days per year for 1,000 staff. Last year, that was down to 4,200 days for 1,300 staff. That works out at 3.23 days absence per person – a 1.31% absence rating, which is considerably better than indicators such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s for the further education sector. It’s been at that level for three or four years now.

It has had a big impact on the bottom line and, just as importantly, it’s about having staff who are at work on a regular basis and in front of customers. Our approach is to keep people fit, healthy and at work. We’ve spent the past four years moving very effectively from a rather brutal HR approach to absence management, to one where we have all of our policies in line to support line management of sickness absenteeism. We’re now much more about prevention and information, and we’re working hard to anticipate any absences.

For instance, we have a team of people, including a physiotherapist and an occupational health nurse, who collect information and keep an eye on anyone who might be ‘wobbling’ and likely to go off sick – for example, someone suffering from wear and tear, or the after effects of an accident. We can intervene very rapidly to put a plan in place to keep that person at work and economically active.

There was an initial degree of wariness from the staff, but people now come to us regularly for support. We manage this process very actively – once a week I meet with the personnel manager, the physiotherapist and the occupational health nurse to see who is off sick, and to discuss what we can do about it. We also encourage healthy eating and keeping fit at work as part of a very integrated approach. Apart from the drop in absenteeism, we have also seen a general improvement in health and fitness, the number of accidents at work has steadily declined, and our turnover has more than doubled in the past six years. And staff approval of management has seen a marked improvement, too.

Why it worked

• We used a holistic approach
• We weren’t afraid to tackle staff who were faking illness to avoid disciplinary procedures
• We worked with the unions

Peter Barnard, registrar, Grimsby College

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