Sick note returns to public sector

Recent absence statistics do not bode well for local authorities. Despite
aiming to lower sickness levels, the figures show the reverse, as Dominique
Hammond reports

Lambeth is no longer a haven for the work-shy. So declared Lambeth chief
executive Heather Rabbatts on the back of figures showing a halved sickness
absence rate over three years at the London borough. From an average of more
than 15 days per employee a year, it now boasts a rate of seven and a half
days.

While Lambeth’s achievement is impressive, unfortunately it is not
representative of the wider picture. Figures published by the Employers’
Organisation for Local Government at the end of last year show an overall
increase in absence in the sector.

The average rate of sickness absence for all council employees in 1998/99
was 9.6 days. This marks an increase of nearly a day on last year’s 8.7 days.
This compares with an average of around 6 days for the private sector,
according to Personnel Today’s and MCG’s HR Benchmarker.

Among areas of concern are two groups – non-manual staff in large
authorities and manual staff in small shire authorities.

The first group, which includes staff from the London and metropolitan
boroughs, counties and unitaries, were absent for a day and a half more in 1999
than 1998. This represents an average of just under 11 days from 9.3, the
highest rate seen for this group since the statistics were first collated six
years ago.

The second group also broke its record, with an increase of two days,
bringing it to a rate of just under 11 days.

Manual staff in large councils took almost a day more, bringing them up to
14 days.

Non-manual staff of small authorities recorded the "healthiest"
levels. It was the only group to have stuck at the same absence level, of 7.3 days,
a year on – a rate also half a day lower than its 1994-95 to 1996-97 level.

The figures will not only dismay local authority personnel departments,
which have been trying to get to grips with the problem over the past year or
so, but also the Government, which is intent on reducing absence in the public
sector. In July last year the Cabinet Office challenged all public sector
bodies to reduce their absence by 20 per cent by 2001 and 30 per cent by 2003.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is setting a
five-year target for local authorities to reach a level of absence equivalent
to the current lowest quarter. For authorities with sickness rates at the upper
end of the scale that will mean cutting absence by 27 per cent and shire
districts by a third, according to the report.

One saving grace is that the statistics are at least comprehensive now.
"These figures are probably the best picture we have had of sickness
absence in local government," said report author Peter Norris, principal
researcher at the Employer’s Organisation. "This is the first time we have
included every region. It will give us a good benchmark from which to judge any
improvement."

The fuller coverage of this year’s report may also go someway to explaining
why sickness absence levels have risen. This year included returns from
northwestern and north-eastern councils that did not respond last year. The
North has a higher sickness rate than the South in all areas of the economy, so
this is likely to have pushed up the average.

"This is particularly likely to explain the rise in sickness among
manual employment in the shires, as northern shires have significantly larger
manual workforces than in the South," Norris explained. "There is a
tendency for larger organisations to have higher absence rates due to
management control being spread more thinly."

The good news is that the report is to be followed by practical help. The
Employers’ Organisation is producing a set of absence management standards as a
benchmark for councils. Those struggling will be able to go to those having
more success to learn good practice.

Brushing up absence management techniques can only be a good thing, but head
of personnel in social services at Nottingham City Council, Angela Probert,
believes it is crucial to understand what is causing the problem. Nottingham,
which has already drastically reduced absence, has based its work on a
systematic collection and analysis of data (see box, left).

"Managing absence is not a difficult science, but you do need to know
what the levels are and why people are off," she said. "If you’re
doing it without that information, you’re managing the effect, not the cause,
and you are not addressing the problem."

Nottingham gets to root of absence problem

Nottingham City Council has slashed absence in its social services
department by more than half in 18 months. By September 1999 it was 12 and a
third days – lower than the national average of just under 15.

To achieve this it has had to be tough. It has retired 57 people on the
grounds of ill health and dismissed 19.

But it is also taking a long-term approach based on addressing the causes
of the problem. The starting point has been collecting detailed monthly records
on the number of absences and the causes. Information gathered for the last
quarter of 1999 showed the three main causes to be musculoskeletal problems,
stress and depression and sickness and diarrhoea.

The next step is for personnel to work with occupational health to come
up with strategies for tackling those specific problems. However, it is line
management, not personnel, that is responsible for managing the problem. Making
that clear and giving them the training and support they need to carry out that
task is central to the scheme.

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