Local NHS employers are to implement more rigorous sickness absence management standards as a result of a new national agreement1 reached with the trade unions.
The new framework agreement, which came into effect in April after two years' discussions, forms part of a wider package of measures on ill‑health retirement and absence management. Changes to ill-health retirement arrangements are likely to expand the role of occupational health professionals and medical advisers working in the sector - for example, requiring them to advise on long-term ill-health cases and to make decisions on which level of the new-style ill-health pension retirees will receive.
The agreement was informed by a wide-ranging review of current practice, which aimed to identify clear processes for handling sickness absence, rehabilitation, redeployment and ill-health retirements in the NHS. The minimum standards set out in the agreement form part of NHS national employment terms and conditions and cover the employer's legal responsibilities towards staff under health and safety, disability and discrimination legislation. The agreement sets out key employer behaviours for the effective management of absence and contains a clear statement on the value of a healthy workforce in providing quality health services.
The role of employees in maintaining their own health is also noted - the agreement states that employees have a responsibility to work with employers to manage absence and explore options for their own return to work.
Key elements of the framework agreement, which local employers will need to refer to in developing their own practices and procedures, include:
occupational health support: the new agreement stresses the positive impact of a well-managed OH service. Line managers are encouraged to seek the advice of OH professionals when dealing with long-term absence cases as early as is reasonably practical and individuals "may also self-refer for advice and support about the best way of seeking a return to work"
a structured review process: local policies on absence management will need to incorporate a series of reviews to assess and monitor staff off sick, with a view to helping them return to work