Sick leave at the National Probation Service is now running at an average of 12.3 days a year for each member of the workforce, directly costing £31.6m.
The cost of overtime payments for staff to cover for absent colleagues could add a further £2m a year, warned a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) public spending watchdog.
The difference between what is being achieved and the service’s target of nine days amounts to 66,420 working days lost, equivalent to about £11m or 300 full-time employees.
Insufficient management information hinders the service’s ability to diagnose the reasons for high levels of sickness absence and take appropriate management action, the NAO said. The service has limited information about the causes or average length of sickness absence, or breakdowns by age or gender.
In April 2003, the National Probation Directorate circulated a model national policy, including guidance for managers, to the 42 regional probation areas. But managers can use discretion about action to be taken and procedures are not applied consistently, the audit report said.
Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said: “Managing sickness absence more effectively will lead to better value for money in the Probation Service. Tackling the problem will require investment in better information, robust and proactive management, and the consistent local application of policies that have been agreed nationally – particularly to tackle stress and improve work-life balance issues.”
Fiona MacTaggart, home office minister with responsibility for the Probation Service, said a number of policies had been put in place to address the issue.
These include linking elements of chief officers’ pay to beating sickness absence targets, sharing best practice, and requiring each probation area to submit an action plan on reducing absence.