In cold, bleak February, with unemployment rising and dire warnings of worse to come, who can blame local government staff for feeling under the weather? To add to their woes, the UK is experiencing its worst flu outbreak for eight years.
At its height it led to a 25% rise in demand for GP out-of-hours services across England, with some areas seeing much higher rates, according to the NHS Alliance. So it’s no surprise that workplace absentee rates are soaring.
On the other hand, how can senior managers be sure that the staff calling in sick really are ill? The manufacturer of cough medicine Benylin has annoyed employers by urging people to “take a Benylin day”.
Managing absence is a complex issue, and one that is particularly challenging for local authorities. According to the CBI, average absence rates now stand at 6.7 days per person per year across the UK. And the public sector has significantly higher rates than the private sector - nine days per employee, compared to 5.8 days for private sector staff.
This gap has increased from 30% in 2003 to 55% in 2007.
But absence rates in local government are lower than those for the public sector as a whole and they are reducing. The Audit Commission’s recent Tomorrow’s People report showed that councils had reduced average sickness absence by 6.7% over the last four years, the equivalent of 6,000 full-time employees.
Maintaining this rate of progress could release an additional£150 million worth of savings, the report said.
And overall time-off rates have fallen since their peak in 1990, which employers believe is largely due to improved absence management policies. Not only can these help track patterns of absence and enable senior staff to locate problem areas within their organisation, they can also help distinguish between the genuinely ill and those who are taking time off for other reasons.
Those councils which take an integrated approach to the issue are most successful in bringing rates of absenteeism down.
“Cutting-edge organisations are linking absence management to wellbeing policies, and being clear about measuring where they are in terms of absence rates before they implement a policy,” says Jessica Colling, product director with workplace health consultancy Vielife.
“Making sure that you have accurate data about your organisation is an essential starting point. Then you can look at developing a policy of ‘productivity management’, not just ‘absence management’.”
One example is Shepway District Council, which has cut absence rates dramatically by updating its absence management system, and using employee assistance and cultural change programmes to help address the absence issue.
Rates have nearly halved from 12.2 days to 6.5 days per person per year, and the number of staff on long-term sick leave has fallen from 15 to just two people.
The key is to see absence management as a core responsibility of all managers, with senior staff taking the lead on absence management, says Gordon Tinline, director at occupational psychology consultancy Robertson Cooper.
“This should not be seen as an “add on” issue that management needs to address and can then forget about once there is a policy in place,” he warns. “It should be part of the generic management system for the whole authority.
“Absence figures are a good way of assessing the overall health of the organisation in terms of motivation and commitment. If staff are taking absent leave for reasons other than illness, this needs to be addressed across the organisation. Why are these people not motivated? Why is this happening?”
One reason for the relatively high absence rates in local government is that many staff are in highly stressful, public-facing roles.
Support for these staff is essential, and councils need to be very clear about where the stress ‘hotspots’ are located in their organisation. And managers should know also whether a particular employee is usually a good attender - this should influence the way an absence policy is implemented.
“If you know that an employee has a pattern of taking Monday mornings off, then you need to find out the reason for this,” says Mr Tinline. “But if they have a good attendance record, and have simply been ill with flu, then you need to focus on whether they are ready to come back, and whether, for instance, they need support in terms of tackling their workload during their first week back.”
Policies need to be updated regularly, and councils should ensure there is not a culture of taking extra sickness leave, says Dr David Wright, of Atos Healthcare. “For instance, some public sector organisations have a system in which staff are referred to their manager if they take more than 21 days of sickness absence. Policies do have to have a trigger point, but you need to be careful about how this is promoted.
Instead of seeing 21 days as a ceiling, some staff see this as an entitlement.
“Some councils have absence management systems which are too slow. In one organisation we worked with, staff would be absent for 16 weeks before seeing an occupational health nurse.”
Another concern is that in some local authorities, there is a ‘yo-yo’ pattern in terms of absence, in which absence is tackled only when it is perceived to be a problem, says Ben Wilmott, employee relations adviser with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
“Line managers are given the target of bringing absence levels down, and when they achieve this, it falls off the agenda again.”
The CIPD would like to see line managers appraised against their absence management record, alongside other management competencies.
Taking a consistent approach is vital during a downturn, when stress levels are likely to affect absence rates long after the flu outbreak has died down. “Last time there was an economic downturn was 2000-2001, and absence levels did increase then,” says Mr Wilmott.
“But it can go either way. Staff may take sick leave because they are stressed by the overall situation, but you can also have the reverse problem of presenteeism - in which people turn up at work because they are worried about their job, but they aren’t necessarily productive.”
Mr Tinline agrees. “The best practice approach is to have a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. But this should not be about rewarding people for full attendance - then you are just rewarding them for what they are contracted to do, and penalising those who were ill through no fault of their own.
“And of course you don’t want people turning up to work with infectious diseases like flu. If staff really are ill, they should stay away from the workplace.”