NEW PROPOSALS to help reduce long-term sickness absence and ill health retirement have been drawn up by unions and NHS Employers.
The proposals, out to consultation until 21 January 2008, are intended to 'raise significantly the standards required to manage long-term sickness in the NHS'. They also aim to help protect the new NHS pension scheme from the costs of staff who are unable to return to work.
Sickness absence levels for the NHS are currently running at 4.5% nationally, according to figures from The Information Centre for Health and Social Care.
Additionally, it is estimated that ill health retirement costs the NHS pension fund around £25m a year, a figure that is set to rise when staff begin to retire at the later age of 65 under the terms of the new scheme coming into effect in April.
But the NHS is notoriously poor at ensuring staff are treated properly if they are off sick for long periods of time. Stories of staff who end up in trouble because their sick pay has run out are commonplace. So what can nurses expect from the new arrangement?
The new proposals will require all trusts to have a series of minimum standards for the treatment of staff on long-term sick leave.
All trusts must intervene within six weeks of a nurse going off sick and offer them treatments considered appropriate, such as physiotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Staff should then be placed on a suitable return to work programme such as phased return or redeployment in another role.
Those who have serious accidents should be immediately placed on a list of staff who can no longer work and therefore will then receive an enhanced pension.
Richard Parker, chairperson of the staff side sickness absence and ill health retirement review, said: 'It needs employers to manage long-term sickness absence to make sure that those who go off sick get back to work in their own job, rather than having to take ill health retirement.'
Jeremy Orr, ill health review project manager for NHS Employers, added that long-term arrangements had to change as the current ones favoured older workers who went on long-term sick leave to retirement age. They could therefore discriminate against younger staff who were incapacitated a long while before they retired.
'What happens at the moment is the older members of staff get better benefits. We wanted to make it more equitable,' said Mr Orr.
Under the new proposals, younger nurses will receive more enhanced pensions to compensate for the longer period they are unable to work.
More controversial are plans to make trusts responsible for paying their own ill health retirement pension bill, instead of current arrangements where costs are borne by the central NHS pension scheme. No timetable has been set for this to come into place.
But Melanie Garrod, a nurse who won £140,000 from her trust because she could not work due to work-related stress, fears the proposals could make staffing shortages worse.
'If trusts are having to pay out of their own pocket for [ill health retirement] there is going to be a risk of other jobs going,' she said.
'One of the biggest reasons people go off long-term sick is because of stress,' she added. 'If trusts are struggling anyway because of being short staffed they will get more people off long term sick. It will make a vicious circle turn faster.'