Features: August 21st, 2009

By Amanda Ludlow

Absenteeism is an issue for the private and public sectors alike. But the problem is particularly acute in town halls where 13.5 days are lost each year, compared to 7.9 days in the private sector. The author examines management attitudes to absenteeism, which are part of the problem. She also suggests ways to cut the absenteeism rate substantially.

Sickness absence in the public sector is an issue that’s frequently discussed in the British media but rarely addressed effectively by the organisations themselves. Long periods of absenteeism both in the public and private sector impact heavily upon the nation’s productivity levels, leading to debate at government and industry level, around how best to manage the problem.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimated that in 2007, 172 million working days were lost due to absence, costing employers across the public and private sector £13 billion. Given that the public sector workforce in the UK averages 5.8 million – approximately one in every five workers – it is not surprising that long periods of public sector sickness absence, in particular, has detrimental effects on workplace efficiency and overall productivity.

The reasons behind public sector sickness absence have been discussed widely – many have pointed to the organisational culture of the public sector to be part of the reason. Others recognise that there are some uniquely challenging job roles in the public sector that are likely to have higher than average absence levels, no matter how well the issue is managed.

Given the traditional views on sickness absence within the public sector, and knowing that it affects UK councils in particular, Benenden Healthcare commissioned SOLACE Enterprises to examine local authority sickness to see what financial impacts it has on the economy, look at the current sickness management strategies in place and advise on what positive steps can be taken to combat the issue. The research findings were very insightful, showing what needs to done and the approach needed to tackle public sector absenteeism.

The survey revealed that the cost of public sector absenteeism to the taxpayer is approximately £4 billion a year. Significantly, the average number of days lost per local authority employee, per year, was 13.5 days, compared to 7.9 days in the private sector.

84 per cent of councils surveyed left absence management to line managers and middle management, considering it an HR, rather than a strategic business issue. Only seven per cent of authorities felt that the issue should be examined at director level and incorporated into an overarching business strategy, a challenge faced not only by councils but the public sector as a whole.

Although worrying figures, the research showed that a change in perception and how sickness absence is addressed can combat the problem effectively.

Having looked at the research findings, Benenden Healthcare believes absence rates within local authorities can be reduced by around 20 per cent, leading to savings of £800 million. To do this councils and other public sector organisations need to adopt a holistic, top-down approach to workplace wellbeing and absence management.

Tackling the problem in hindsight, as councils are doing presently, actually compounds the culture of absenteeism, making the problem increasingly complex and impossible to manage effectively. Instead, local authorities and other public sector organisations need to think strategically and practically about how to keep people well and operational within the workplace. Only with this approach will they be able to get the best out of their most expensive asset – their staff.

Given that 63 per cent of local authority employees who consulted their employer regarding their well-being found the help they received to be ineffective, it’s clear that combating sickness absence successfully is, currently, not happening. Many health initiatives implemented by employers do not match reasons given for absenteeism and there seems to be a disconnect between the reasons why staff go on sick leave against the measures implemented to reduce sickness absence.

The main problem areas in addressing sickness absence focuses on the fact that sickness continues to be reported and monitored with regards to number of days lost, rather than by cost to the business. Little consideration is being given to the return on investment that public bodies could receive by investing in holistic schemes. Furthermore, health and well-being issues tend to be recounted anecdotally, rather than via a robust audit of the workforce.

Unless measures to combat sickness leave within our public bodies are addressed at board level, the gap between public and private sector efficiency will continue to widen and, if this gap gets too big, it’s not something that will be as easily reversed as it could be now.

Benenden Healthcare is not seeking to purely criticise UK councils or the current management strategies they are applying to employee well-being and health. Instead, we are keen to open up debate with councils on the issue of sickness absence, and look at ways in which we can address this issue together.

We believe councils tend to be proactive when it comes to talking about the employee days saved through initiatives to combat sickness. Experience tells us, however, that these initiatives are often ineffective, as they have a higher monetary cost than the absence itself. What’s more, councils rarely quantify the cost of these initiatives in order to make that bottom line assessment.

Benenden Healthcare would like to see councils looking at well-being and absence as a whole, which would do more to prevent the problem and curb the trend. Adding value to staff benefits packages, for example, means that employees are taking control of their own well-being, and regular stress audits serve as a barometer for the mental health of council staff.

Working together with UK local authorities, we believe we can effectively address the sickness problem and help councils implement the appropriate management strategies. These will positively impact absence levels which will help alleviate financial pressures on local authorities and, in turn, cut public sector costs.

Amanda Ludlow is Head of Business Development at Benenden Healthcare Society.