Tower Hamlets defends stricter sickness absence policy

The head of HR at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has defended the council’s decision to radically alter its sickness absence procedures.

The council has recently come under attack from its trade union Unison, who accused management of a “bullying” approach and lack of consultation. A one-day strike was held earlier this month in protest at the procedures.

Head of HR Cara Davani said the council made no apologies for introducing the changes as it had a culture where people felt they were entitled to time off marked as sick leave.

At 10.8 days lost per employee per year, Tower Hamlets ranked 29th out of 32 London Boroughs for its performance on staff sickness levels.

“We don’t feel, as an organisation, that having that level [of sickness] is helping us deliver the services we need to provide to the community,” Davani told Personnel Today.

“I’ve heard people on the Docklands Light Railway [travelling to work] saying ‘I’ve had a day off and it was my last day before I hit the trigger so I can’t have any more sickness’. They say these things because they think an element of sickness time is allowed. If those perceptions can’t be changed you have to look at something different,” Davani said.

The council has now reduced the ‘trigger’ – the point at which formal procedures kick in – from 11 days off sick to five days.

The strategy, launched in September last year, also includes:

  • an external call-centre run by outsourced provider

  • greater management intervention

  • a flexible working programme

  • enhanced health promotions and greater awareness of wellbeing.

Tower Hamlets aims to reduce its sickness levels to nine days per employee by the end of March 2006, in line with the public sector average.

“Local authorities are notorious for badly managing sickness and t’s got to change,” said Davani. “People need to be encouraged to attend work.”

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