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LEADERSHIP ACADEMY

Present and correct: how to manage staff absence

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Workplace culture, training and an integrated approach are central to good attendance, says Steve Gulat

Managing sickness absence or “managing attendance” is one of the most common issues that managers have to deal with.

Without the people at work to deliver the care that patients need, the best training, equipment and facilities in the world cannot have any impact.

Data from the NHS Information Centre suggests that overall sickness rates have fallen recently, at 3.97% (July-September 2010), compared with 4.34% for the same period in 2009.

However, among staff groups, nursing, midwifery and health visiting had the third highest level (at 4.82%).

Absence levels are highest in the public sector at 9.6 days per employee, compared with 6.6 days per employee in the private sector.

What percentages cannot show, however, is the culture within an organisation or a local team; is there a culture of “attendance”, where sickness absence is exceptional, or is it one where regular absences are tolerated or even expected?

As ever, the tone is set by the leaders of the organisation.

An integrated approach to keeping levels of sickness absence in control is vital.

You don’t have to go it alone - good HR departments should be only too happy to work with you, both operationally (with difficult cases), and in a wider sense through training and information. Occupational health services also have an important role.

Good HR and occupational health services, which will actively work with you to achieve the results that you want, are crucial. If you aren’t happy with their input, say so and demand more support.

Five ways to reduce sickness absence

  1. Make information work for you. Do you know about absence levels and patterns? Can you find regular, up-to-date information on this? How does your area compare with others?
  2. Use and share expertise. Contact HR and occupational health. Speak to colleagues with experience in managing attendance; they will understand specific issues.
  3. Does your employer offer training in managing attendance? If not, ask HR for some. Ask for practical advice, not a lecture on policies.
  4. Be brave. Dealing with absence usually benefits the employee and the service but some cases lead to dismissal. Don’t duck these cases - sticking to principles will make you a better, more respected leader.
  5. Remember the impact on the patient. Bank and agency staff can plug gaps, but suboptimal staffing levels hurt those we all care about most - patients.

Steve Gulati has held a wide range of senior HR roles in the NHS, and is a visiting lecturer at the Health Services Management Centre

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