Public sector absence under the spotlight

Aaron Ross, chief executive of absence management firm FirstCare, says the push for public sector efficiency will force organisations to tackle absence. “Reducing costs and improving performance by tackling absence must be one of the most palatable efficiency cuts any chief executive can make at this time,” he says.

Top tips on managing absence

  • Encourage high attendance rather than talking about high absence.
  • Recognise high attendance with non-monetary rewards.
  • Hold managers at all levels accountable for absence reduction – make it part of their performance review.
  • Deal with frequent, short-term absence first. It’s easier and produces quick results.
  • Use return-to-work interviews – they have been shown to be the most effective way of reducing absence.
  • Train managers to become assertive leaders so that they own the problem.

Source: Gerry, HR Space member

The scale of the challenge is highlighted in IRS research that showed median public sector absence standing at 3.8% of working time per annum for public sector employers last year – compared to 2.4% in manufacturing and production, and 2.6% in private sector services.

The survey of absence rates across 256 employers also shows that absence costs are higher in the public sector based on the median figure: £685 per head for 2009 compared to £455 in private sector services and £545 in manufacturing and production.

Widening gap

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says IRS’s research reinforces the findings of his organisation’s annual absence management survey, which last year showed a widening of the gap between public and private sector absence from 2.6 days per employee per year in 2008, to 3.3 days.

“Public sector absence has consistently been higher,” he says. “This reflects poorer performance management, allied to the fact that public sector employers are typically large. It is a truism that large organisations have bigger problems – absence is part of that.”

The public sector does have some defence to criticism over absence, stresses Emmott, pointing to the high proportion of challenging public-facing roles such as policing, nursing, teaching and social care. “Staff, especially in healthcare, have much more exposure to the public and there is a significant risk of stress and physical attack.”

Dean Shoesmith, HR director at Sutton and Merton councils and president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, insists it is too easy to paint a broad brush over the gap between private and public sector absence, pointing to a number of factors.

“The private sector tends not to monitor sickness as rigorously as the public sector, the latter being subject to external scrutiny. This can mean some under-reporting of absence in the private sector. And the public sector tends to pay occupational sick pay, whereas the private sector often pays statutory sick pay – this has an impact on attendance.”

Lessons from the private sector

For Intercontinental London Park Lane Hotel HR director Caron Jones, absence management is all-encompassing, and doesn’t always signify absence due to sickness. “We address the management of absence from an open approach, ensuring our associates discuss with us in advance what their plans are so we can assist their work-life balance to fit where possible,” she says.

In an approach pioneered by Tesco in 2004, the first three days of unplanned leave are unpaid, unless “fair and reasonable situations have occurred to prevent attendance” and the employee communicated this correctly and consistently, Jones says. “If more than five unplanned absence days in a three-month rolling period occur, the employee is invited to meet with HR so that we may gain an understanding and offer support or request employee assistance programme partner Healthcare RM to offer support,” she adds.

“All employees have a return-to-work interview with their manager and are advised of their responsibilities and, in turn, allow the departmental manager to be prepared for any ongoing issues or concerns.”

Presenteeism problems

While the public sector is often in the firing line over higher absence rates, unions insist that presenteeism is actually more of a problem than sick leave. In March, a TUC poll of more than 2,000 UK workers revealed public sector employees were more likely to work when too ill to do so and less likely to call in sick. In the past year, 41% of public sector staff went to work sick when they should have stayed at home, compared to 36% of private sector workers.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber says it is a myth there are quick and easy savings from new policies that assume that sickness absence is mostly skiving. “The truth is, we are really a nation of mucus troopers, where workers – particularly those in the public sector – routinely go into work when they are too ill and should be at home.”

The IRS research indicates the economic slowdown may have exacerbated the problem of presenteeism. Of the 67 organisations that indicated the recession has had an impact on attendance, nearly half (49.3%) said sickness absence levels had fallen, with three in 10 (31.3%) saying absence has increased.

XpertHR editor and report author Rachel Suff says: “An economic downturn can have a double-edged impact on sickness levels – some people may feel increased pressure to show their loyalty to the organisation and go in to work even when they are sick, but there could also be an increase in sickness absence levels if employees suffer from stress and anxiety.”

Regular monitoring, measurement and a clear performance management approach work well to reduce sickness absence, according to Shoesmith. “At Sutton/Merton we measure absence rates in service areas against resident satisfaction in those same service areas, as a means of assessing the impact of absence on customer service and customer satisfaction.

“Equally, we find health awareness programmes, good employee engagement programmes and employee development are all effective in promoting improved attendance.”

Employers ignorant about the true cost of absence

Fewer than four in 10 (37%) of the employers surveyed by IRS could provide figures on how much absence costs their organisation.

Of those that could provide costings, most admitted they fail to take account of many of the direct and indirect effects of sickness absence on their organisation’s productivity.

More than nine in 10 (91.4%) respondents who gave absence costs base them on the salaries of absent individuals. But just 14% include the fees of temporary staff providing cover for absent staff. Even fewer employers (9.8%) refer to overtime costs for staff covering for absent colleagues in their calculations, or the costs arising from reduced performance (6.5%), or other indirect costs such as reduced customer service, missed business opportunities and so on (6.5%).

The CIPD’s 2009 annual absence survey found the average cost of absence per employee per year was £692. It was highest in the public sector, averaging £784 per employee. Absence costs the UK economy £17.3bn overall, the CIPD said.

But the IRS research suggests the true organisational cost of sickness absence would be much higher if all the other factors were taken into account in employers’ estimations.












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