… but thorough review of sickness absence practice and wider public sector people management is needed.

By Lea Pachta

High levels of sickness absence in the NHS will only be tackled if there is a twin track approach that looks to drive-up the quality of people management across the health services, as well as improve absence management policy and practice.

This is the view of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in response to the post-budget announcement by the Department of Health that it is to save up to £555m by reducing staff sickness absence.

CIPD research shows that absence in the health service at 11 days per employee per year is significantly higher than the public sector average of 9.7 days, which compares to average absence levels in the private sector of 6.4 days.

Ben Willmott, Senior Public Policy Adviser and author of the CIPD’s respected Annual Absence Management Survey, said:

“There is no doubt that the NHS and the public sector as a whole have particular challenges in managing absence, with a high proportion of high pressure, public facing roles and a higher proportion of older workers and women than the private sector.

“However, there is also a big contrast in absence management policy and practice, with public sector organisations less likely to discipline or dismiss for absence-related reasons, as well as providing more generous occupational sick pay. As a result, we’re confident that there are savings to be made from the public sector sickness absence bill, and we welcome the commitment to tackle the problem.

“If the government’s ambitious targets for reducing the cost of sickness absence are to be achieved, the minimum first step must be a thorough review of absence management and sick pay policy and practice in the public sector. However, there also needs to be a clear recognition that real savings from tackling absence will rely on better people management across the board. CIPD research shows that public sector managers don’t tackle poor performance well and fail to address issues like conflict at work effectively. In addition, managers in the health sector need better skills to manage stress effectively through improved communication and management of workload and more confidence in managing difficult situations.

“As well as a focus on improving absence management policy and practice, there needs to be a root and branch review of people management training across the NHS to ensure that the professionals such as doctors and nurses who often find themselves in management positions have the skills to manage performance and support employee health and wellbeing.”

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