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.
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.
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."
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 a