NHS sickness absence: HR must first address culture of ‘presenteeism’

A number of NHS workers are falling foul to ‘presenteeism’ – working when they feel unwell – which could significantly affect the level of sickness absence and labour productivity across the health service, experts have warned.

An interim report by Dr Steve Boorman today revealed the NHS could have 15,000 more people at work every day if more is done to cut levels of sickness absence.

The health service has sickness levels at 10.7 days a year per employee; higher than the public sector average and 50% higher than the private sector at 6.4 days, the government-commissioned report found.

The review also highlighted that many NHS workers struggled into work when they were ill. Approximately 20% of the 15,010 employees taking part in the survey said they had attended work when they were not capable for one or two days. More than 5% said they had spent more than six days at work when they were unwell.

Fiona Robson, a lecturer at Newcastle Business School, said while the figures had to be seen in the context of the working environment at the NHS, there was a role for HR to communicate sickness policies so workers felt less pressure to attend when they were unwell.

She told Personnel Today: “Teamwork is so important in the NHS, there is probably some concern from those ill staff that they will be letting their colleagues down, and patients down if they do not turn up. However, HR can improve awareness of sickness absence policies, and make sure they are communicated. HR must make staff know that if they are ill they should not come to work; if anything they may infect patients or colleagues.”

Robson said employees felt pressure to come into work when ill because they knew it would be difficult for their supervisors to organise cover or re-arrange shifts, effectively meaning not enough NHS staff were available to provide a back-up service.

“It is widely known the NHS has issues with retention. Recruitment has improved but keeping nurses in the role still remains an issue. There’s also the financial pressures regarding intangible costs of needing to supervise temporary staff more, so it makes it hard to just provide cover.”

However, the Work Foundation think tank said the level of presenteeism signalled the need for a cultural change in the health service.

Michelle Mahdon, health and wellbeing programme leader, said: “The level of presenteeism in different parts of the NHS identified through the report is an area of concern and deserves further study, as together with levels of absenteeism, presenteeism could significantly affect labour productivity in the NHS.”

Boorman said giving people access to services such as physiotherapy and counselling can help prevent serious problems developing.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), called on NHS trusts to imrpove training in managing people.

“One of the problems facing the NHS is that senior nurses, doctors and consultants are not given sufficient training in managing people. The CIPD believes that people management skills must be included as a critical element of the development of all professions involved in the delivery of public services,” he said.

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