Occupational health drive keeps Met a force to be reckoned with

John
Eccleston finds out how the Metropolitan Police Service managed to reduce
sickness absence levels and improved the general health of its frontline
officers

Managing
sickness absence is a major challenge for most HR departments in the UK, but
ensuring there are enough staff fit for duty is even more critical if you are
trying to police one of the biggest cities in the world.

Making
sure that officers are fit and available for duty is a major priority for the
Metropolitan Police Service, with ill health costing more than £100,000 in lost
police time every day.

The
sickness problem is compounded by the nature of policing because as well as the
usual viruses and colds, officers are also subject to all manner of other
conditions.

Muscle
strains and serious injuries are not uncommon and police staff are also subject
to hugely stressful situations which can lead to problems that require time off
work.

Traditionally,
most police forces have suffered from high levels of sickness absence and this
has presented problems for HR staff trying to keep the service running at its
peak level.

The
problem is particularly acute in London because such high numbers of officers
are required to police the city properly.

However,
a programme to reduce sickness by focusing on occupational health, coupled with
a drive to improve officers all-round health has helped dramatically reduce the
absence rate.

The
average number of sick days taken by officers has steadily fallen from 10.8 in
the summer of 2001 to the current figure of 8.8 – below the nine-day target set
for 2003-04.

The
Met’s HR director Martin Tiplady said reducing sickness absence has been a
crucial area for the service.

“This
is important for the Met and a great achievement" he said, "as maintaining
a healthy workforce means more officers are available to police London.

“Our
policies for recuperative and restricted duties have been successful in helping
to get officers back to work and the reduction in officer sickness levels is a
credit to the hard work and support given to officers by the occupational
health department. We will now aim to try and reduce officer sickness levels
further still,” he added.

The
reduction is due in part to an OH ‘hot spotting’ campaign which signalled a far
more robust approach to managing sickness, with intervention at a much earlier
stage.

The
OH department identified sickness hot spots across the organisation and sent in
teams to work with the injured staff and their managers.

“We’ve
invested a lot of time to make sure managers are looking at absenteeism at a
local level and making sure they intervene at a very early stage,” said Tiplady.

He
explained the two most common problems were physical injuries (such as twisted
ankles) and stress, which is a huge problem across the UK, but even more so in
such a high-pressure environment.

To
help lessen the impact stress can have on staff, Tiplady said that officers
particularly at risk, such as those working with victims of child abuse, were
now assessed and interviewed before and after shifts of duty.

He
has also ordered a stress audit of around 10,000 staff to build a picture of
the problem and look at possible ways of addressing it.

“We
launched the audit to look at where the major stress levels are and [to
identify] what we can do to reduce them. By March we’ll have analysed the data
and will hopefully be able to implement a plan,” he said.

The
Met has also introduced a year-long series of health promotion campaigns to
ensure all officers stay fit and healthy.

The
drive, which is split into four parts – healthy eating, fitness, stress and
cancer awareness – is being delivered using specially-adapted vehicles that
visit officers at their own stations.

The
healthy eating part of the scheme offers staff a cook book of healthy recipes,
but also carries out a range of medical tests to measure health and fitness.

The
results are then analysed and officers can receive advice from a nurse as to
what course of action they should take.

So
far around 600 officers have been seen on the first stage of the campaign with
around 75 referrals to other areas.

For more on the Met’s absence management policy see the
latest issue of Occupational Health magazine
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