NHS defends sickness record

The HR chief of the NHS has defended the health service’s sickness absence
record, claiming that trusts face special difficulties, and are on course to
meet their long-term targets.

Addressing a National Audit Office conference last week, Andrew Foster said
the health service is still well ahead of the fire service and local government
with a sickness absence rate of 4.6 per cent, and trusts are nearly halfway
towards achieving a 2 per cent reduction by 2008.

"In the past four years there has been a small improvement – only 0.2
per cent – but it underlines that we have some difficult factors of long-term
stress and manual handling injuries," he said.

Foster admitted stress was an "absolutely massive problem" in the
NHS, with rates 50 per cent higher than the average – especially among women
managers balancing work and family life. But he pointed out that last year nine
in 10 trusts passed the NHS’s work-life balance standards, Improving Working
Lives (IWL) – which covers a range of work patterns including flexible hours,
annualised hours, self-rostering, offering better childcare, and protecting
staff from harassment.

The NHS is to produce revised guidance on stress in February 2004. It will
take into account advice from the latest National Audit Office report,
published last month, and recommendations from the parliamentary Public
Accounts Committee.

Foster stressed the IWL test is not just a "tick-box" exercise. An
independent external accreditation team met random workers to ask if their
organisation had made the various anti-stress measures available.

The Department of Health is expected to produce the first draft of its
first-ever occupational health and safety strategy this week. This will outline
managers’ accountabilities and responsibilities, and will be monitored through
the IWL standard.

By Katherine Burke

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