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Janine Milne

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The HRZone Interview: David Frost on sickness absence

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Every year, around 11 million workers call in sick and 140 million days are lost to sickness absence.

The economic cost of ill-health is estimated to be a staggering £100 billion.
 
Moreover, each year around 300,000 employees will not return to work, joining the benefits system instead. Not surprisingly, the government is keen to find ways to lower these levels and encourage those on health benefits back into work.
 
As a result, last year, David Frost, a former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, together with the government’s health advisor, Dame Carol Black, published an independent review of absence on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions.

A year on, Frost, recently appointed as a non-executive director of Absence Manager, a service set up to help employers tackle the problem, is still hopeful that the government will respond to some of the report’s suggestions.

 
“The government had a real concern with the 300,000 people dropping out of work a year and onto state benefits and that has a substantial cost,” he notes. “We see that, after a period of over four weeks away from work, people become disassociated and, without that connection, they start, quite frankly, to lose the desire to work at all. So companies need to keep contact going and help them get back to work.”

One of the key suggestions in the Frost-Black report was for the government to set up an independent assessment service that would replace the GP ‘fit note’ scheme.

 
Instead of a GP assessing an individual’s ability to return to work, the independent assessment service would make that call for people who had been off work for more than four weeks. Those deemed able to return in some capacity would be offered help.
 
Taking responsibility
 
“If you’re in your 50s and an essentially unskilled worker, and then something like that happens, what we don’t want to see is them drop out of the labour market,” Frost explains.
 
While an individual worker may not be able to return to their previous job, particularly if it involved heavy physical work, it could be possible to change their role within the company or find alternative work at another employer.

But Frost notes that there is a stark contrast between absence figures in the public and private sectors. “The private sector seems to average seven days a year, but the public sector is stuck at double figures. Some local authorities have absence rates of 12 days on average per person a year,” he says.

The cost to hospitals of paying agency costs, for example, has a huge impact on budgets, however. “Some people in the public sector saw it as a right – they’d used up their holiday, so now they were entitled to sick pay,” Frost adds.

But the key to changing the situation in both sectors lies in the will of senior managers to tackle the problem. In particular, Frost warns against passing responsibility to outside agencies.

“I do not think it can be outsourced. It’s too easy for organisations simply to say ‘let’s get a third party to manage this for us’. You need management to do the job for which it is paid and to manage the problem,” he contends.

To do that effectively, they need to monitor carefully what is going on within their organisations. “Organisations run into difficulties because they don’t have evidence – there’s no clear timetable of when people had time off,” Frost points out.

Once the requisite data has been collected, however, patterns tend to emerge of when and where employees take time off, revealing sickness hotspots in particular departments or teams.

 
Management needs training
 
These insights make it easier to begin assessing the reasons behind absenteeism. Cardiff Council recently found, for example, that absenteeism levels in its waste management department far outstripped those in the rest of the council, with an average sickness rate of 25 days a year compared to 11.49 in other departments.

But the people who can really make the biggest difference are line managers. Frost acknowledges, however, that in order to help them undertake sometimes difficult conversations with staff, they need support and training.

 
The idea is that, as the demarcations between work and home life continue to crumble, issues such as money, family and relationship problems are increasingly entering the work sphere, and managers need to be able to deal with them.

“Management needs training, particularly as the growth of absenteeism is based on stress,” Frost says. “It’s pretty easy for a manager to have a discussion with someone with a broken leg or back ache, but if the absence is due to stress or domestic and financial problems, then that needs a lot of training to deal with and it’s difficult to discuss.”

But stress may be a key consideration, particularly during times of economic hardship and uncertainty, the issue doesn’t necessarily lead to higher rates of absenteeism per se. “More people possible take time off, but there’s also a degree of presenteeism,” Frost suggests.

Although well-being and employee assistance programmes all help here, it essentially comes back to management practice. In organisations that have effective systems in place, there are low levels of absenteeism.

 
One of the measures that can help people to manage stress levels and reduce absenteeism rates, however, is flexible working. People tend to work harder and more productively when they are allowed to do so within flexible hours or from home which, in turn, leads to a drop in absenteeism levels.

Regardless of how the government responds to the problem though, Frost believes that, when it comes down to it, it’s really up to employers to take responsibility for tackling high sickness levels within their own organisations.

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