Driving down cost of absence with analysis of sickness data

Westminster City Council sees the battle against sickness absence as a business driver and reaps benefits from managers trained to analyse data and provide support to staff

Most people would agree that there is a clear moral and overwhelming business case for employers, whether in the public or private sectors, to manage sickness absence.

A significant number of local authorities, Westminster City Council included, now regard the management of sickness absence as a key business driver. Effective sickness absence management has the potential to deliver benefits to employees and simultaneously save money and prevent waste of human resources.

It is therefore essential that employers keep a close eye on their strategy to make sure that it is as effective as possible. Back in early 2006, we decided at Westminster City Council that our policy was in need of refreshment even though our sickness absence rate was below the London local government average.

Although this task of reviewing the performance of sickness management was driven by HR, a small cross departmental, multi-disciplinary team was also enlisted to provide valuable insight into how a revised policy could be owned and implemented by managers and employees. The team included members of departmental line management, organisational development, health and safety, occupational health, and HR as well as employee representatives.

The team decided that an employee assistance programme should be implemented as part of the review and that employees be provided with information regarding the support available through the scheme. Trigger point referrals for employees to see an occupational health professional were also suggested.

The involvement of management was identified as key. The team laid down that sickness absence management information should be provided to line managers on a daily basis and that these managers be trained to interpret the data and to respond to sickness issues effectively by departmental champions charged with communicating the sickness absence management strategy. It was also suggested that regular updates regarding corporate performance were also to be made available to senior management on an ongoing basis.

These proposals were endorsed and supported by the chief officers and resulted after the first 12 months of operation in a reduction in the sickness absence rate of over two days per employee per year on average and a saving of over £800,000.

The employee assistance programme is valued by the organisation and is available free of charge to employees and members of their immediate families 24 hours a day. Although the council is provided with information regarding the issues raised each quarter, the service is totally confidential and individuals are never allowed to be identified.

Although there was an initial increase in referrals to occupational health that caused some backlog, this was monitored weekly and quickly rectified. The introduction of trigger points for referrals means that occupational health is now involved at an earlier stage in the sickness absence management process, proving beneficial to the employee and the employer.

The team continues to conduct research into new corporate and local initiatives regarding the health of employees and it is looking at how employee health MOT checks can be offered, but funding options need to be assessed.

While there are still improvements that can be made to the sickness absence management strategy there now appears to be more confidence within the organisation particularly when dealing with difficult or sensitive issues.

Increasingly employees are talking to the organisation about what provision can be made for health improvement and ill health prevention and where we can we have responded to issues raised. For example, following demand for private medical insurance the council negotiated with a partner organisation to provide a private health insurance scheme that employees can buy into with their families on a voluntary contribution basis. It is very early days to assess the impact of this new arrangement but the early signs are encouraging.

Trevor Webster is strategic HR manager at Westminster City Council


Best practice tips

  • Good sickness absence management makes a great business case.

  • Involve your employees and look to see what investment can be made in additional support.

  • Excellent return on investment and benefits are achievable.

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