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NHS sickness absence rates falling, despite rise in pressure

Sickness absence is costing the NHS an estimated £1.5bn a year, according to the NHS Employers organisation, but staff are taking less time off for illness than they were five years ago.

Across the NHS in England, sickness absence has fallen slightly from a high of 4.24% in 2009-10 to 4.06 in 2013-14, according to data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

NHS Employers, which represents trusts, estimates this has saved the health service the equivalent of £7m, or 273 full time equivalent staff.

“It’s a huge credit to managers and the workforce that sickness absence is falling at a time when the NHS is working exceptionally hard”

Sue Covill

Among NHS staff groups, doctors had the smallest amount of time off sick at 1.22%, with senior managers recording an absence rate of 1.55%.

Qualified nurses, midwives and health visiting staff had an overall absence of 4.5%, with ambulance staff recording the highest sickness at 6.2%.

Overall the HSCIC said NHS staff were taking one less day off sick than they were five years ago.

In recent years there has been a renewed focus on sickness following the 2009 review by Dr Steve Boorman, which called for better sickness policies in the NHS.

Earlier this year, a report by the Royal College of Physicians looked at 178 NHS trusts and found 115 supported staff with health and wellbeing plans, compared with 70 trusts in 2010.

Among individual acute trusts, the latest data shows the top five worst for sickness were all foundation trusts with South Tyneside Foundation Trust recording the highest sickness at 5.26%. The trust with the lowest absence rate was West Middlesex University Hospital Trust at 2.52%.

Sickness absence was notably higher in mental health providers with the worst five trusts all higher than their acute counterparts with Greater Manchester West Mental Health Trust recording a rate of 6.63%.

Coastal West Sussex CCG recorded the highest sickness absence rate at 7.09%, but the region with the worst overall sickness was the North West at 4.60%.

Sue Covill, director of employment services at NHS Employers, said: “We all recognise that healthy, well supported staff are happier in their roles and can give better care.

“It’s a huge credit to managers and the workforce that sickness absence is falling at a time when the NHS is working exceptionally hard to deliver great care,” she said.

NHS organisations with the highest sickness

NHS organisationSickness absence rate
Coastal West Sussex CCG7.06%
Greater Manchester West Mental Health FT6.63%
North West Ambulance Service Trust6.59%
South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust5.26%

Readers' comments (16)

Why are NHS staff taking less time off sick than they were 5 years ago? Share your views in the comments section below

  • Is it not possible that NHS sickness absence rates falling, not "despite rise in pressure" but because of the fear of taking time off work?

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  • Sickness rates may have fallen which is good for the figures, but how many NHS staff are going to work when they are sick because of the financial ramifications (partners out of work, loss of unsocial hours pay etc). How does this help with improving staff wellbeing and mindfulness?

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  • I am not working with the screen, monitor or with the tools. I am working with frail HUMANS. If I'm not on 100% of my abilities, I will call off sick, without too many regrets (happens very rarely - 1 or 2 occasions per year). But I think there is a problem with some lazy individuals taking 'a holiday' and it need addressing. Maybe these funds spent on short 'sicks' should be used as a pool for treating colleagues with serious long term sickness (broken leg, cancer, etc?)

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  • The interesting thing is how many comments have been posted anonymously. People scared in the NHS for speaking their mind.

    More draconian measures when you have lots of time off sick has caused the drop.

    There are good things about that and bad things if you have been genuinely sick.
    The people who work in the NHS need caring for so that they can care.

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  • Our hospital has in full time employment some one to control sickness, this person is in management, so will be getting a higher pay than a nurse on the floor.
    (Easy little job I can do that job while having a nasty cold).
    When one goes off sick they have to answer to this person at stage 1, which is after a few occasions off, you are then monitored very closely, and reminded if you go over the target you will have to look for another job, this is said very nicely of course, you will think that you are being invited to a garden party.
    The stress on the ward is rising, the sickness rate is going down. I feel that England has gone back to the work house era. Management is very poor could not deal effectively with the small number of staff who took off sick for the sake of it, so as they are using nasty method as it is the only solution their little brain can come up with.

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  • It may be suggesting that staff are too scared to lose their jobs in these financially difficult times; and not that things are more rosy in the workplace.

    We need to go behind the figures and look deeper into the realities of the change.

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  • Digging deeper we'll probably find increased levels of 'presenteeism', as sickness absences drops. Staff are more stressed at facing tighter and harsher stage one, two + three hearings as well as long term sickness meetings. Constantly under sickness reviews doesn't improve stress levels.
    Being then told that if sickness doesn't improve, could face disciplinary meetings, possibly adjustments, redeployment, under capability procedures, or even medically retired if they can't find a use for you.
    No wonder people do their best to come in. Then they + the patients pays the price when things snap, not the management.

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  • Anonymous | 2-Aug-2014 7:57 am
    We have similar at our trust but a specific person is not employed to monitor it, it is done by the manager. Recently I had 3 episodes of sickness,one for stress, all certificated by a GP. I was given the "If this doesn't improve" speech which increased my stress levels. Result next time I was ill I dragged myself in and then was told off because my work wasn't up to scratch. You just can't win

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  • michael stone

    kathryn lingard | 2-Aug-2014 10:27 am

    I have got a cousin, who isn't a nurse but who was doing night-work, and he decided to go back to work 'too early' after, I think it was, a bout of flu. He afterwards told me 'That I spent the entire night trying to huddle next to a radiator, as I felt absolutely frozen anywhere else'.

    So 'dragging yourself in' - especially if you could potentially screw up something important - isn't helpful, and people should not be pressured into turning up while still not sufficiently recovered.

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  • As much as Flexibility in work palce, support by clinical leads, managers and regular supervision has significantly help reduce sickness abscence from work.
    We should also bear in mind that few staff still manage to drag themselves to work where a little rest could have increase their performance within that short period for fear of sitting across manager's desk to give details about an illness which GP/medics has gone through with then. Not many staff want to disclose details of an illness for fears of this being the talk of the whole team resulting in labelling, hence many doctor's /clinic appointment are arranged on day offs.
    Forcing oneself to work when not 100% fit has always result in putting preassure from increase avoidable work load and stress on other staff.

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  • Sorry for just adding to the sceptical view expressed by many people on this forum but this is just so much garbage. Sick absence rates have gone down for a couple of reasons, the biggest is the fear of being sacked for time off work as a lot of trusts; my own included have drafted draconian sick absence policies that menas staff are penalised for time off, more of that in a bit. The fact that some trusts are now going against national agreements and not paying staff an average of the enhancements they earn when they're off sick (and some people depend on them to survive financially). My trust, as an example penalises staff who are assaulted at work by: 1) counting that time off against thet're sick record, 2) not paying the enhancements they would have earned (despite the fact the are off through no fault of their own) and 3) Ban them from working bank shifts or overtime for the next 30 days, so further hitting them in the pocket. I've also known wards shut down with D&V outbreaks where staff have also been affected and that's been counted against their sick absence despite it being a direct result of them continuing to care for people with D&V and putting themselves at risk. So before we congratulate managers for getting a handle on this lets have a bit of reality. It's management of sick absence by putting people in fear of their jobs if they are sick, nothing less than that.

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  • This improvement has nothing to do with managers, beyond them drafting sick absence policies that are so easy to fall foul of staff are effectively bullied into reporting for work when not 100%, or even close. If I turn up at work with the flu, or diarrhoea, how many other people (colleagues) am I potentially going to affect? And how many patients am I going to potentially harm by doing so? How many people will I potentially harm by my full concentration not being on the job. There are people who swing the lead and those people need dealing with, but the vast majority of people who work in front line services are genuinely sick when they phone in and don't do so lightly becuase we're all aware of the knock on effect it has on our colleagues workloads.

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  • the simple fact is that staff are too afraid of losing thier jobs

    and with the take take attitude of this pay rises have staff draging themselves into work with god knows what and passing it onto staff and patients...really clever eh!!!

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  • Perhaps I'm being a little ignorant here, but has anyone considered that support interventions may have been put in place to support the workforce, such as regular clinical supervision? Allbeit a forgotten entity from the late 1990's, nursing literature supports it's effectiveness. Unfortunately the biggest down fall is that participants must be committed and time must be allocated within the working day to support it by healthcare organisations...there's 2 of the biggest stumbling blocks...time and organisational support

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  • my bosses are turnng the screw on sickness absence whilst complaining that our d&v rate is going up...

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  • I have three close members of my family in the NHS. The Health visitor asked her daughter (A&E Nurse) why she hadn't taken all her sick leave this year (Health Visitor had taken all of hers) her daughter in law said "Ive taken all of mine aren't you taking yours to A&E Nurse who said yes taking the rest for short break after christmas.
    I was admitted to hospital after bout of palpitations earlier this year and had to wait three days to see cardiologist who then discharged me with 24hr tape, just bed blocking. NHS needs someone to come in and square them all up.

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