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Most nurse managers 'negative' about tackling staff absence


Most nurse managers are apathetic about tackling staff absence, despite nurses consistently having one of the highest rates of absenteeism among NHS staff, a study suggests.

Nurse line managers are less likely to tackle staff absence than other NHS managers and are more negative overall about it whether can be reduced, according to the findings by human resources experts at the Manchester Business School.

They surveyed 294 managers from two trusts and found the majority of nurses did not seek to tackle staff sickness absence in their teams – with 60% describing themselves as “inactive” when it came to managing absence, compared to 53% for all managers.

Additionally, more than half of nurse managers, 56%, answered “no” when asked whether absence could be lowered, compared with 42% of managers overall.

Writing in the journal Health Services Research Management, published by the Royal Society of Medicine, the researchers said: “There are nursing staff shortages, yet getting staff into work does not appear to be addressed rigorously.”

They suggested nurse managers may be more negative about tackling the issue because there was a “culture” of high absenteeism in nursing, which outweighed the culture of individual trusts.

“The influence of professional culture within and outside the organisation should not be underestimated,” they said.

One of the authors, Vivienne Walker, told Nursing Times that many nurse managers only had experience within the NHS and, therefore, had always being used to relatively high levels of absence.

“They may therefore not really be seeing absence as a problem because it is what they are accustomed to,” she said. 

Greta Thornbory, professional development director at the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners, said high absence levels had “always been in nursing” and that the stressful working environment partially explained it.

She also said nurses were promoted into line manager roles “because of their technical skills and knowledge, not because of their people skills and knowledge”, and that there was often a lack of human resources training provided for them.

Ms Thornbory said research done by organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development had shown that absence could be reduced, but the majority of nurse managers had not been told about it.

A Nursing Times survey carried out earlier this year found two thirds of nurses reported suffering side effects from work-related stress over the previous 12 months, with the majority reporting they were having to work longer hours.


Readers' comments (27)

  • Stop paying them for the first five days and watch the habitual short term offenders start attending instead of letting the rest of us down on a regular basis.

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  • Anonymous | 15-Aug-2011 11:34 am I completely disagree; maybe the 'sick' days could be seen as time owed for all the unpaid overtime instead?

    Is the fact that noone is willing to do much about this down to the fact that they may be forced to do something about the root causes of high absenteeism and low retention within Nursing if they do? Perhaps they need to ask WHY there is such high rates of both in Nursing, but I can tell them just a few of the primary reasons right now; poor working conditions and chronic understaffing, work related stress and burnout, a complete absence of a work/life balance and insane rotas which can see lates, earlys and nights all in the same week at random, with split days off?

    I could carry on and fill half of a page with this list, but it isn't rocket science is it? Sort out some of these root problems, make the workforce happier, healthier and less stressed and burned out, and you will get less absenteeism and a much higher retention rate.

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  • I have a number of issues with this article, the first being why did they only ask two hospital trusts, and where were these trusts geographically?

    The larger inner city trusts tend to have a higher sickness record than those in the country or smaller cities/towns. It is also difficult to retain staff in these areas as high levels of bank and agency are used which reduces the morale of regular staff.

    These conditions lead to higher stress levels, a larger workload and a low morale which managers themselves also tend to feel. By contrast the hospitals I have worked in outside the larger inner city hospitals tend to retain staff as there are fewer opportunities to move up the ladder, sickness is addressed quicker by the managers due to lack of bank/agency staff being allowed due to smaller budgets and staff appear to have a higher morale.

    The staff are also more aware of the Bradford score and it's relation to them as they want to move up or out quicker so try to minimise their score as much as possible. Not always the best I know ( and it is a situation I really detest personally as I see it as a form of bullying) but it keeps the wards staffed, patients safer (in the fact of numbers) and managers able to meet the demands of the higher echelons. In my experience most people who are trying to get a job elsewhere who would normally have gone sick with a minor cold, etc. actually come in and are fine. It also cuts down the number of people phoning in with hangovers.

    I would like to see the full results of this study and the demographics of the population before publishing as I think it is poorly executed basing it on two trusts.

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  • Findings from surveying nurse managers in only two Trusts can hardly be seen as representative of the overall nursing profession! In my Trust there is a very proactive approach to reducing sickness absence and high level of committment from nurse managers to that process. This is yet another piece of propaganda trying to paint the nursing profession negatively. Nursing Times should amend the title of this article immediately to read 'Nurse Managers in TWO Trusts 'nagative' about tackling staff absence' and NOT 'Most nurse nurse managers.........

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  • It is obvious why nursing managers do not rigorously address staff absences. Because they know that their staff are going sick because they are burnt out from working unpaid hours, insufficient breaks, being asked to work extra hours which impinges on their precious days off, etc etc, I could go on... Plain and simple, managers are embarrassed to be clamping down when they know that they themselves would be off sick if faced with what nurses today are up against. And probably have been themselves in the past.

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  • To anon 15 August (first posting): Are you a manager? Or are you just blessed with an amazing immune system that means that you never become ill? Do you never feel burnt out or exhausted? Sometimes it's necessary for nurses to go sick otherwise they could be at risk to making serious errors which could have a knock on effect on patient care.

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  • I agree with others above me that this article or the study are hardly great examples of scientific journalism, however, the core point of my statement (and others) earlier remains. Sickness and absence IS a problem within our profession, and I am not singling out specific trusts or hospitals (some may be better than others), but generalising to the profession as a whole, with management generally quite unhelpful. So instead of punishing Nurses or imposing the bradford score on them etc, why not sort out the reasons that there is such a high level of sickness and absence in the first place?

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  • I agree with Greta Thornbury that most nurse managers are untrained in HR procedures. If they were trained in people management, rather than workplace management, they would be better resourced to reduce sickness absence in NHS.
    There is a lot of habitual one day absence in NHS, which could be reduced by the use of the Bradford system.
    To one who has spent a lot of time working outside NHS as well as within it there does appear to be a great deal of compacency regarding sickness absence in NHS. Nurses working outside NHS are also often very stressed and overworked, but their sickness absence is lower, often because of the sanctions imposed. But on the whole they are more pro-active in finding a solution to the stresses rather than just moaning about it.

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  • Actually I would like to see some form of reward for nurses who have a good sickness record. Its not to punish those who do have to go off sick but it would be nice to see those who don't go off sick get something for all the work they do to cover other people's absences. I don't think that anyone who goes off sick would begrudge those who are left on duty some sort of reward. In some cases the nurses who are left on duty have to do the work of two, if the absentee has gone off with stress it seems like madness to just ignore those left on duty who had the same stress as the person who is off and then have the added burden of further staff shortages. Some form of acknowledgement would go a long way in my opinion.

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  • it seems unfair to award those who might be healthier or have stronger constitutions than others. after it is not from choice.

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