Humberside Police arrests sickness absence and tackles budget cuts

An effective sickness absence management strategy is helping Humberside Police to cope with budget cuts, says Jennifer Paterson

With the government’s budget axe coming down on the public sector, benefits will be under strict review over the next year. The biggest challenge for Humberside Police is to come to grips with cuts that include a 14% reduction in police resource funding by 2014-15, as laid out in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

According to John Robinson, senior HR manager (conduct and capability) at Humberside Police, more detailed announcements are on the way. “It is a case of identifying the other bits and pieces that will come in in December, then we can look to reshape the organisation again,” he says. “We might have some jam, but we have to spread it pretty thinly. It is shaping the organisation for the future with a reduced budget.”

Humberside Police’s 4,191 employees – of which 2,024 are police officers – account for 85% of its budget. Like most service-driven organisations, the force has already lost about 150 staff through lay-offs and voluntary redundancies over the past year.

Robinson’s chief passion is for attendance management, so he is focusing on the health and welfare of staff. Since 1995, he has been developing the force’s occupational health service, which won an Employee Benefits Award in 2010 for ‘Most effective sickness absence management strategy’.

Looking back to the strategy’s beginnings, Robinson says: “It was fairly new for the police services because they are all founded on welfare. Introducing it was quite difficult because welfare had got such a hold and the two just did not fit.

“An employee would come in to get their head looked at by welfare, while the rest of their body was looked at by occupational health, and the body and head would never get together. It is all integrated now. The walls came down, but it took some doing.”

Sickness absence a real problem

By the time that first big step was made, it became clear that sickness absence was a real problem for Humberside Police, with high levels experienced in 1996 and 1997. Police officers were absent 11.8 days a year and police staff were off sick 14 days a year.

The cost of absence was £3.6 million out of an annual operating budget of £100 million. According to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), Humberside was one of the worst performers out of 43 forces across the UK. “It was the impetus that we needed, the old kick up the backside from the HMIC,” says Robinson.

Humberside rolled out an attendance criteria policy in 1998 and cut its sickness absence levels by 25%. The policy states that an employee should not be absent through sickness over the previous three years for an average of more than 11 working days or more than five separate periods per year.

Attendance management sub-policies established criteria for the introduction of return-to-work interviews, full identification of attendance management roles and responsibilities, convalescent care, flexible working, recuperative/restricted duties, physiotherapy/podiatry, and rehabilitation.

Benefits of the attendance management strategy included a maximised attendance record and improved performance and motivation, but the most noteworthy was a culture change. “It was the most significant culture change I have seen in this organisation in 20 years,” says Robinson. “Now people fully understand why the organisation has attendance criteria and why it is important.

“It is one of those things that is pretty readily understood by the vast majority of staff. When it was introduced in 1998, it was very innovative for a police force. I am not sure if the private sector would adopt such a system. It is not one-size-fits-all.”

Occupational health offering

The attendance management policy ties into the force’s occupational health offering, which includes counselling, onsite nurses and two offsite general practitioners, and risk assessment-based medical examinations that are available to staff either once or five times a year, depending on their role.

“Although the attendance criteria could be used in total and utter isolation, we decided that was not how we wanted to be,” says Robinson. “We wanted to support staff, either who were sick and absent from work, or who were sick and potentially going to be off work. The only thing you can do there is have a responsive occupational health service. We have the in-house service already functioning to support the attendance criteria, and it was supported with various policies, practices and procedures, which are proactive, preventing people from going off sick in the first place, or reactive to people who have gone off sick.

“I call them umbrella policies. Occupational health does extremely well looking after long-term sickness, being proactive with case management, talking with the line manager, talking with the local HR manager, and talking openly with the individual about when they can be expected back and what the organisation can do to get them back.”

Although its health and wellbeing practices are clearly pioneering, an organisation like Humberside Police does not offer a typical benefits package, says Robinson. All staff have access to a final salary pension scheme, discounted local gym membership, flexible working options, and performance-related pay and bonus schemes.

“The benefits are that we pay well, people have a good level of annual leave entitlement, and there are good supporting conditions of service, such as time-and-a-half and double-time,” he adds.

Attracting and retaining staff has never been a challenge for Humberside Police because it is primarily about having a brand that fits in with the community, maintaining respect and credibility, and dealing with people in a fair way.

Recruitment funds not there

However, in the current economic climate, the funds to recruit police officers are just not there.

“The organisation is getting slimmer because the budget has been trimmed,” says Robinson. “The police service and the public services in general are looking at ways to trim their workforce to fit the budget that will come in April 2011. We have all got to get ourselves lean and efficient to provide the services the public would like us to provide.

“We have not changed that much but, on the police staff side, we have grown in numbers through a process of civilianisation, or workforce modernisation, where we have looked at police officers’ roles critically and asked whether we need a police officer to do that job. If the answer is no, we have taken the opportunity to change that role from a police officer post to a police staff post.”

Humberside Police is also in the middle of a two-year, full-scale review. “It is reviewing every single function within the organisation to identify where we can make efficiencies,” says Robinson. “It is not just about saving money, it is about making the best use of what we have got. And we have saved quite a significant amount of money.

£15 million target saving

“We have had to anyway, because the police authority has set us a target of saving £15 million over five years.”
In the meantime, all the UK’s police forces – if not the entire public sector – are in the same boat. Humberside Police is now tying for first place with West Midlands Police and Hampshire Constabulary for its sickness absence levels since introducing its absence management policy. “We are not a one-trick pony – you can see the trend year on year, and we are still coming down,” says Robinson. “We achieve this because we do keep an eye on attendance management. Other forces have followed our lead, and we are happy to share best practice, on attendance management or anything else that is good.”

Humberside police at a glance

Humberside Police is one of 43 police forces across the UK. It was created in 1974 following a merger of previous forces under the Local Government Act, along with the non-metropolitan county of Humberside. It succeeded Hull City Police, part of the areas covered by York and North East Yorkshire Police, the old Lincolnshire Constabulary and the West Yorkshire Constabulary.

Headquartered at Priory Road, Hull, the force spans North-East Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire, the East Riding of Yorkshire and Kingston-upon-Hull. Its policing divisions are based around Grimsby, Scunthorpe, Beverley and Hull, and comprise teams of community officers, response teams and investigation teams. The divisions are supported by seven branches.

The force employs 2,024 police officers and 2,167 police staff. Gender distribution for police officers is 73% men, 27% women, and for police staff 41% men, 59% women. Average age of police officers is 40, and 43 for police staff. Length of service for police is 14 years and for staff 7.7 years.


Career history: John Robinson

John Robinson, senior HR manager (conduct and capability) at Humberside Police, has been working in the “people arena” since he left school, starting out as a work-study engineer at Pyrex and developing that role into personnel consulting. He has been at Humberside Police for 20 years, starting as principal personnel officer and progressing gradually to his current role.

Previously, Robinson was a management consultant at Humberside County Council for 15 years. “We were consultants to education service provision, fire and police services,” he says. “That was my primary reason for moving. I wanted to be hands-on, to be front-line HR.

“I am proud that I got to a senior management position within the force after serving a long apprenticeship in the people business with different employers in different roles. I got a fantastic grounding that gave me a practical knowledge base that has stood me in good stead as both a manager, as well as the different roles I have held.”

Flexible working fits the bill

Emma Shakespeare has been a police constable with Humberside Police for six years. Her current role is as an interviewing officer with the Priory Road police station’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) interview team.

“The most useful benefit for me is flexible working,” she says. “I am able to work reduced hours, which is really important to me as I have young children and it would be difficult to work full-time with my current commitments at home. It is also good to know that in the future, when I am able to work more hours, I will be able to increase them.”

Shakespeare has been a member of the pension scheme since 2004 and says: “It is a considerable portion to pay out of my wages, but I feel this will be of benefit to me. When I was on maternity leave, I elected to pay back my pension contributions for the few months I received statutory maternity pay. It was worth making those payments up so I am not short when I retire. It is good we are given an option to keep up the payments.”

The benefits at Humberside Police


• Final salary scheme. Police officers contribute 11%, police staff 7%. Employer contribution is 24% for police officers and 17% for police staff.

Work-life balance

• Career breaks, job-sharing, adoption leave, terminal illness carer leave, flexible working, domestic leave.
• Childcare voucher scheme.


• Police officers with up to two years’ service get 22 days; those with up to 10 years’ service get 25 days.
• Police staff get between 24 and 27 days a year.
• Extra days added at both levels after five and 10 years’ service.

Staff clubs

• Sports and social clubs. Reduced rates at local gyms. Variety of sports teams.

Pay and bonuses

• Performance-related pay introduced in 2006: competency related threshold payments (CRTP) for all police officers in the federated ranks (up to and including chief inspector); and special priority payments (SPP) for certain groups of police officers which are chosen by the Chief Constable.
• Bonus scheme available for all staff based on performing outstandingly demanding work, such as handling dead bodies. The maximum of £500 has never been paid.


• In-house occupational health service, which includes counselling, onsite nurses and two offsite general practitioners, and risk assessment medical examinations (available once or five times a year, dependent on role).

Read more case studies