This week’s letters

Time to build stronger links between employers and GPs

We are a medium-sized company employing 240 people in our
manufacturing/engineering facility. We are a traditional unionised facility
with long-serving employees, 95 per cent of whom are male. The average employee
age is over 40.

During the past year, we have seen increases in our staff absence rates –
between 5 per cent and 8 per cent a month – and absence at one of our business
units in particular runs at up to 20 per cent in one week. We are now in talks
with the union to amend our absence management system and entitlements to our
(generous) sickness pay scheme.

There is certainly a feeling among the management team that sicknotes are
handed out willy-nilly. Workers generally seem to feel that once they are
signed off, they cannot be touched.

We have an occupational health (OH) service that we use for health
referrals. We try to encourage employees back to work, initially on restricted
duties, and to facilitate a return to normal work further down the line.

Working in HR and having responsibility for the management systems on
absence, I do find the attitudes of employees increasingly frustrating. For
example, we call them regularly if they are long-term sick, we have the option
to organise home visits, and we arrange the health referrals with the OH nurse.
Yet, so often the response from the employee is hostile, with an attitude of
‘how dare you contact me when I am off sick’.

I certainly believe the sicknote system needs to be worked on. It is
refreshing to hear that the Government is considering taking action.

I agree that it would be beneficial for employers to have OH issuesicknotes.
However, the cost burden for small companies having to provide OH facilities
may not be feasible. This is a scheme that should be means tested, or it should
be left to each employer to negotiate their terms and conditions of employment.
One thing that should be considered, though, is what happens if an employee is
mis-diagnosed by OH, or is not signed off and then has an accident at work due
to illness? Will providing an in-house OH service mean a greater burden on
companies, given the claims culture and heavy insurance premiums?

We are a local employer and I feel the local GPs see us as a big, bad one.
We will shortly be taking the initiative and inviting local GPs to our premises
for a site visit.

Hopefully, we can help to enhance their knowledge of what we actually do.
This may in turn encourage GPs to discuss with those patients who want to be
signed off with long-term sickness, any other work they may be able to perform.
It may also help to build stronger links between employer, GPs and OH.

Details supplied

OH route could prove costly for small firms

I write with reference to your research and story on GPs issuing sicknotes
(28 October). The idea of introducing occupational health (OH) or specialist
advisers to assess sick employees and write sicknotes might relieve the burden
of responsibility from GPs.

This option may well be the solution for larger organisations, with big HR
departments and the funds to recruit or buy in OH. However, for many smaller
organisations, which are not heavily resourced in HR, such a move would be

HR does have a part to play in addressing some of the sicknote/ absence
issues. We can introduce good, practical guidelines and work with line managers
to monitor frequent absences before they become a costly, long-term problem.
But HR is not equipped to assess genuine illness.

Details supplied

Only GPs will benefit from a new system

I have just read the news in your latest issue (28 October). It would seem
the only people who will benefit from occupational health (OH) specialists
taking over the issuing of sicknotes are the doctors who will have a decreased

However, if OH cannot provide a diagnosis or dispense medicines, then an
individual may have to visit the doctor anyway. For the genuinely sick, this
will not aid recovery.

Additionally, the financial and logistical burden to an employer having to
buy in the specialist services – particularly those with a field-based
workforce – could be prohibitive. Small businesses will suffer most from such a
system – again.

Irene Filler
Office manager, Anglewest

Government must cure sicknote crisis

Thank goodness someone is planning to do something about this creeping
paralysis. The existing sicknote system, coupled with current employment
legislation, is ensuring that malingering employees have the upper hand, as
companies become more impotent to resolve the problems of frequent absenteeism.

Government must resolve this problem, and quickly. Management is spending
too much time tip-toeing around absenteeism problems because the system is
rotten and does not allow management to manage without the very real threat of
legal procedures being initiated by an employee or their trade union.

In my organisation, 8 per cent of employees account for 88 per cent of the
frequent absenteeism (using the Bradford Factor). Keep up the pressure on
Government, as it is its [European] legislation that has resulted in our
impotency and the worrying escalation of the professional malingerer.

Recently, an employee asked for unpaid leave to visit Australia. The company
refused the request. The employee went off sick (produced a doctor’s note for a
bad back). The employee was not at home when a company employee visited them.
When the company phoned enquiring about his health, a woman at the house said
he had gone to visit his sister in Manchester. When another employee phoned
again, saying it was just a friend enquiring about his health, the woman
replied: "I thought it was his work chasing him again. He’s gone to
Australia and won’t be back until next week."

Upon returning to work, the employee was seen by management and disciplined.
But still he claimed he was sick, had a doctor’s note, and denied going to

Paul F Jordan
Operations and HR director, Hypnos

OH better equipped to deal with illness

The current sicknote system is clearly unsatisfactory. GPs are left in a
difficult position if individuals claim to be unable to work.

I have seen cases where bad backs are the apparent cause of absences, yet
the organisation is prepared to offer sedentary duties to facilitate a return
to work.

This works well for the genuinely sick. However, malingers often choose not
to tell their GP that light duties are on offer by the employer. Instead, they
may tell their GP that they perform heavy lifting in their role. Quite rightly,
given such a tale, the GP will sign them off.

This kind of partial disclosure by the malingerer is hard to police under
the current sicknote/absence system. It can take several weeks for an employer
to contact a GP directly, at a cost of £50 to £75.

An in-house occupational health (OH) adviser, or someone with a more
detailed understanding of the employment relationship, will have far more
insight into an illness or injury and the feasibility of an employee returning
to work. May your proposed changes to the system come quickly.

Scott Dalrymple
HR manager of operations, LOGiCOM

Special report was a real wake-up call

I am delighted to see that Personnel Today is backing the campaign against
stress in such a clear, focused way, as seen in your special edition devoted to
the subject (21 October).

It is very important for publications to back this campaign and I am delighted
to see that you are bringing current thinking, awareness and knowledge to the
relevant professionals in industry.

The research figures by Personnel Today and the HSE are staggering, and it
is only through proactive initiatives such as yours that HR professionals will
be armed with the tools to manage the difficult job at hand. Your excellent
reporting has provided a much-needed wake-up call to UK plc, and no longer can
industry say ‘they didn’t know what was going on or what to do’.

You have provided the information, and now we have to see what is put into
practice. No longer can industry sit back on their haunches or bury their heads
in the sand.

Carole Spiers
CEO, Carole Spiers Group

People need training to help tackle stress

I read with interest your article on the key triggers of workplace stress
(News and features, 21 October 2003). As stress takes its toll on the
workplace, HR has an obligation to tackle it and to put strong prevention
methods in place.

Most people feel stressed when they are placed in a situation that they
don’t have the right skills to successfully deal with. They need to be trained
in skills ranging from stress management through to more challenging areas,
such as communicating with difficult people and defusing aggressive workplace

It is often these skills that are missing the most from professionals in the
workplace and yet, ironically, it is these skills that are required for
business success.

Laura Kelly
International marketing manager, Thomson NETg

Using brain-friendly learning is the key

I was intrigued by your report that the failure to use both sides of the
brain is a big part of the reason why training departments struggle to produce
better results (21 October).

In my experience, many training programmes miss out on a big opportunity
because the process used does not gain the commitment of the learners, either
to learn anything, or to apply their new skills back at work.

When organisations use brain-friendly learning, they invariably find staff
make a stronger commitment not only to learning new skills but also in applying
them back in the workplace.

The emotional connection to learning ensures a strong commitment. Once that
has been made, people look for the opportunity to apply what they have learned.

Bill Esterson
Director, Leaps & Bounds

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