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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Great workplaces tackle absence better than systems

The best approach to tackling absence is to create great workplaces to work in - not rigid management systems and targets.

Today, I was speaking at a MacKay Hannah conference on ‘Tackling Absenteeism in the Public Sector in Scotland: Prevention and Health Promotion’.

Angela Cullen from Audit Scotland set the scene from their published report on Scotland's public sector workforce. This showed that the workforce has been cut by 7% since the crash, down to around one in five of the total workforce. Council staff have taken the brunt of cuts. The workforce is ageing significantly with young people the biggest losers, down by 25%. Over one third of staff are over 50 and that is the biggest growth area with potential skill and knowledge risks for public services as they come closer to retirement. They have extracted data on sickness absence from their recent report into a useful new publication on their website

Fred Best from Work 4 Wellbeing made the business case for taking measures to improve wellbeing at work. More than a glossy document and a bowl of fruit! Poor data is a problem with 18% of sickness absence reported as 'other' due to IT system limitations. A key message was the cost of presenteeism that can cost 50% more than absence - £105bn in 2010. Workplace conflict costs UK business £33bn per year, taking 20% of leadership time and losing 370m working days. Investment in wellbeing can save £4 for every £1 spent. Behind these statistics is the real human cost of ill health.

Roddy Duncan from the office of the Chief Medical Officer outlined Scottish Government initiatives to create healthy working lives in a very challenging environment - ageing workforce and austerity cuts. Long term absence is a particular issue with 51% of long term absentees in Scotland being disabled. The healthy work strategy is based on premise that work is good for health and workplaces should promote health and wellbeing of the workforce.

Dame Carol Black's independent review of sickness absence was referenced by several speakers. That emphasises that worklessness is harmful for most people. Equally useful is the work of The Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives.

My presentation was on the reality of the ‘sickie culture’ in the Public Sector: policies, support and management. I started by debunking some of the myths about sickness absence in the public sector. It may be cliché that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but there are others. For me, one is the Daily Mail asking me to respond to the latest CBI claim that public sector workers have a 'sickie culture'.

The main response to the headline data is that the two sectors are not comparable workforces. The public sector is an older workforce with more women and with major occupational differences. For example, staff in the care sector are 45% more likely to be sick. Public sector staff also tend to work in larger organisations with sick pay agreements and better recording systems. One consequence is that public sector staff have more long term sickness absence but less short term absence than in the private sector. Overall, public v private is simply irrelevant to the debate, you need to look at other factors.

We do know that there is greater and growing presenteeism in public sector. A CIPD survey showed 39% in the public sector compared to 26% in the private sector. Unpaid overtime is also more common in the public sector - 1 in 4 compared to 1 in 6 workers in the private sector. All of this is reinforced in a UNISON Scotland survey we published last year.

Instead of a puerile public v private debate we need to focus on positive absence management. This is my list of measures:

• Agreed absence management policies with proper training
• Regular reviews of data at safety Committees
• Less reliance on formulas and triggers
• Measures to facilitate and promote employee health
• Involvement of quality, independent, occupational health professionals
• Minimise workplace stress
• Employee assistance programmes for personal or workplace problems.
• Maintain contact during long-term sickness absence
• Structured return-to-work plan with adequate adjustments and support.

There was some discussion about the new government occupational health assessment scheme. This is right in principle, but I suspect it will become an ATOS style tick box exercise. Sickness absence rules and targets in the public sector can be very similar - chasing short term solutions at the expense of more sustainable long-term solutions. We also need to recognise the impact of later retirement ages on particular occupational groups.

My main message was that if you are serious about tackling absence you need to focus on making workplaces great places to work in. The speaker from Investors in People described this as the soft stuff, but in their view still absolutely vital. A friendly, varied, fair and supportive working environment is more effective than any set of absence management rules.

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