Tackling long-term sickness absence at East Sussex Council



The organisation

East Sussex Council, based in the county town of Lewes, employs about 15,000 staff – many of whom commute from neighbouring Brighton and the surrounding rural area.

As well as office-based staff, the council employs teachers, social workers, home helps, refuse collectors and other manual and administrative staff who work at a number of sites spread across East Sussex.

The challenge

Like many public sector organisations, the council has suffered from high rates of absenteeism. Two years ago, the situation seemed intractable. Its occupational health (OH) team was over-stretched, with one full-time adviser and an OH physician who spent half a day per week on site.

The real challenge was long-term sickness absence. At that point, some 250 staff had been signed off on long-term sick leave, and there seemed little chance of them returning to work.

The solution

When assistant director, personnel and training Leatham Green took up his post at the council, he decided to take a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. The goals were to put wellbeing at the top of the agenda and get staff on sick leave back into the workplace. Green wanted to strengthen the partnership between the OH team and HR, and transform staff attitudes towards workplace health and attendance.

A new OH team was set up with increased funding. It now has two-and- a-half full-time equivalent OH advisers, and helps promote health initiatives across the organisation managed by the HR team.

East Sussex Council also manages a wellbeing scheme for 15,000 staff at other organisations in the area, including Brighton & Hove Council.

All absentee processes have now been streamlined and tightened up. Any staff member who is off sick for more than four weeks is automatically referred to the OH physician. Those who have had three periods of sick leave in six months also get a referral, as well as those who are absent for eight days or more in six months. And no sick pay at all is paid to employees in their first year of service.

This no-nonsense approach has helped Green and his colleagues sell the wellbeing policy to senior managers. “We made a business case: this is the number of people you have got, this is the number of days they have off, this is how much it is costing the organisation,” he says.

“What we can demonstrate is that if you increase your investment, you will be able to tackle staff absence much more quickly, and therefore we will see a reduction in absence which will more than recoup the extra cost.”

With this sound financial basis, HR has been able to introduce a comprehensive wellbeing programme – albeit one that staff have to pay for – to offset the uncompromising nature of its absence policy. The programme includes a host of activities, which staff can opt into voluntarily. These include running, squash, pilates, yoga, and alternative therapies such as Indian head massage and hypnotherapy, as well as health training from FitBug – a scheme that creates bespoke corporate health and wellbeing programmes.

Employees also have access to pedometers, a smoking cessation scheme, slimming groups and stress management advice.

One option that raised eyebrows was the ‘Colour Me Beautiful’ image consultancy workshop, but Green is adamant that feeling good about your appearance can increase job satisfaction.

And he stresses that all this costs the council very little. Indeed, all it provides is a venue for therapists – staff opt in and pay for their treatments themselves. Rates are cheaper because of the number of people attending, and work time is made up under the council’s flexitime system.

Communication has been the key to getting this message across to staff. The scheme is promoted on TV screens in the canteen and publicised through team briefings, leaflets and a wellbeing intranet.

The outcome

Since the scheme was introduced 18 months ago, Green says the authority has cut sickness absence costs by around £1m, while increasing its expenditure on OH to £100,000. Staff uptake of the service has rapidly increased.

So far, 26 people have quit smoking (eight of them after hypnotherapy sessions), more than 350lb has been shed in 17 weeks by staff signed up to Slimming World, and sickness absence has been reduced by 6% since 2004.

Staff surveys all so show that 73% of staff enjoy working for the council, an increase of 6% since last year. In its adult social care department, the average number of days lost to sickness each year has fallen from 18 to 13 since the scheme was introduced. “Improvements have been dramatic,” says Green. “Now reductions are slower, though they are still falling.”

Equally significantly, the scheme has buy-in from the top. Chief executive Cheryl Miller sees the scheme as an effective morale booster, and is a regular user of the reflexology workshops.

Green is pleased that the wellbeing message has made an impact – and that it’s not seen as a soft option.

“Our mantra here is that it would be great if people could have a fun time while they are working, and be productive and happy. We spend lots of time at work, so why not enjoy it?”

Employee perspective

John Shepherd, assistant manager, group pensions at the council, says the new fitness programme on offer has helped him avoid potential back pain.

“I turned 55 recently, and I’m well aware there are always potential problems with your back as you get older. When I first heard there was a weekly pilates class in 2005, I wasn’t even that sure what pilates was. But the fitness club where they run the class is near the office, so I went along.

“I enjoyed it, and have been going ever since. Now I’m helping to organise the group, although all I really need to do is collect the money.

“I’ve got a bit of stick from colleagues, but spending 45 minutes at the class each Monday lunchtime has definitely made a difference. If you’re working crouched over a PC all day, this can really help.”

Implementing a wellbeing programme in 10 steps

1 Start at the top: commitment from senior managers is essential if you are going to make wellbeing a priority.

2 Be business savvy: align wellness goals with business strategy and highlight links between wellbeing, reduced absenteeism and healthier profits.

3 Get the finance in place: initial funding is needed – but in the long term, financial savings should follow.

4 Go back to the drawing board: take a fresh look at existing practices, andbe prepared to introduce a completely new system.

5 Create a healthy culture: a wellbeing strategy should mean staff are treated with respect as well as being offered physical health benefits.

6 Communicate, communicate, communicate: get the wellbeing message across in a fun, accessible way.

7 Think laterally: East Sussex uses local practitioners who offer their services at reduced cost. Wellbeing initiatives don’t have to be expensive.

8 Push the barriers: don’t be afraid to suggest radical solutions to intractable problems.

9 Take a balanced approach: keep staff on side by balancing a tough absence policy with ‘feelgood’ initiatives.

10 Listen to your employees: picking up on staff ideas for wellbeing workshops is a good way of boosting morale.

If I could do it again…

“I’ve learned that it’s easy to be put off trying out new things by being told ‘it won’t work here’ – so I will have even greater courage to give ideas a go in future,” enthuses Leatham Green, assistant director, personnel and training at East Sussex Council.

“Our industrial relations climate is positive, so I feel I could have pushed things harder at an earlier stage. The unions have an opinion and so does the organisation, but it is about debating and exploring the points of view.

“If you are trying to change the organisational mindset, you have to push the barriers,” says Green. “With hindsight, we could have challenged the traditional approach more directly.”

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