Thought leaders 2010: The year ahead: Promoting a healthy attitude to sickness

Key Points

  • Sickness absence is linked to the underlying culture of an organisation and its managers. A poor culture leads to high absence rates
  • Organisations need to be able to do more with less, which requires a fit, productive workforce
  • To combat absence, employers need clear policies, current information, training for managers and a strategy for those falling short of the standards required

An effective sickness absence strategy benefits both employer and employee, says Sarah Barnes, Crawley Borough Council’s human resources manager

The level of employee sickness absence is considered a good indicator of an organisation’s health. Not simply in terms of days lost and the cost of sickness – it can also provide an insight into the underlying culture and attitudes of employees, the effectiveness of management policy and practice, and employee support systems.

In the next 12 months, the public and private sectors will continue to face challenges: pressure to deliver more with less, reduced funding or simply their resilience to survive the recession. For this, an organisation needs its workforce to be fit to perform to the best of their ability. Likewise, employers must provide a healthy environment that offers support and flexibility for those who need it, appropriate benefits schemes and a strategy to deal with those who do not reach the standards required.

The need for clear policies, up-to-date information, training for †managers and support from senior staff will be as relevant as ever. Surveys and reports across various industries and within HR suggest these building blocks are in place. The next step is to ensure management action is taken by †using them. Managers must have the confidence to make decisions, facing the outcome of their actions rather than dealing with the consequences of not acting.

In past years, the appetite to deal with sickness issues may not have been a high priority. The perception is that the public sector has higher levels of sickness, takes a more lenient view or simply does not deal with cases.

Sickness levels

In 2004, Crawley Borough Council reported an average sickness level of 11.4 days per employee. By 2009, this had reduced to 6.9 days per employee, our lowest for over 10 years and below the national average. Our journey has been particularly challenging, resulting in a comprehensive review of our policies, providing on-site occupational health support, improving sickness absence reporting data and delivering interactive training sessions for 250 staff.

Initially, the focus was on dealing with the immediate situation with the aim of driving a change of attitudes and culture, and promoting good practice. Recently we have focused on the preventative measures encouraging staff to take more responsibility for their own health.

We continue to deal with absence management, but balance this with a more holistic approach to employee wellbeing, offering advice and access to services and activities to promote good health. Many of these have been staff-run with little or no cost: introducing cycle-to-work schemes, nutrition and weight-loss classes, walking and running clubs at lunchtime, and changing the menu at our staff restaurant.

Positive feedback

The feedback has been extremely positive, motivation levels in our staff survey have improved and the take-up of activities and options continues to increase. We have been able to form links with our local leisure centre and wellbeing service providers. Small changes and ideas have often been the most successful.

Now when we talk about sickness absence, it is more than just the hard data and numbers such as days and costs – we include the softer measures around wellbeing and employee satisfaction. This mirrors the convergence of these two aspects, which will be a continuing trend.

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We are pleased with the progress we have made and are aware we need to keep working hard to maintain this level of success. That is why we are so proud that this was recognised and we were awarded ‘Most effective sickness absence management strategy’ in the 2009 Employee Benefits Awards.

Read more articles from Thought leaders: The year ahead