The latest NHS Digital figures show that staff absence due to sickness has reduced by just 0.15% in the past two years, from 4.44% in 2015 to 4.29% in 2017.
The lowest rates of sickness absence (0.96%) were for nurses, midwifes and health visitors, while healthcare assistants and support staff showed the highest absence rates (5.9%).
The NHS is working to cut rates of sickness absence, which are associated with high costs for the organisation. A 2009 review found that reducing levels of sickness absence in the NHS by a third could save £555 million, equivalent to 3.4 million days every year. Common reasons for sickness in the NHS include stress and mental health problems, colds and flu, musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain, and more serious illnesses such as cancer.
NHS Employers, which negotiates contracts with NHS staff on behalf of the government, say efforts to manage sickness absence should focus on prevention but also consider interventions and reactive measures. In their latest initiative, they outline eight key elements for a workplace health and wellbeing programme:
- Have a sickness absence lead
- Work closely with the health and wellbeing lead
- Support line managers through training
2. Shared strategic vision
- Be clear about where sickness absence fits into the wellbeing agenda
- Set measurable objectives
- Develop and agree a clear and simple process
- Understand the needs of staff
- Meet regularly with key stakeholders
- Act on feedback
- Have clear and consistent messages
- Communicate regularly with line managers
- Choose words carefully
5. Know your data
- Have a clear and agreed process for recording absences
- Minimise obstacles to accurate recording
- Regularly review data
- Encourage staff to take personal responsibility for wellbeing
- Link with the public health agenda and use NICE guidance
- Work closely with key stakeholders
- Take a targeted approach
- Use available resources and support services
- Ensure interventions are available for staff
8. Evaluate and act
- Evaluate what works well, and what doesn’t
- Act on findings
The elements were identified based on input from a ‘network of health and wellbeing leads across the NHS’ and should always be considered together, not individually.
The team at NHS Employers have also created an online toolto guide managers through what to do when a staff member calls in sick. They recommend that managers remain supportive, while trying to ensure that staff members return to work as quickly as is appropriate.
For staff that are frequently off sick, they recommend looking for patterns and discussing this with staff to identify underlying causes. They also provide new tips on managing long-term sickness (> 28 days), including working closely with occupational health and keeping in regular contact with the staff member.
There is also an online calculator, which can be used to estimate cost and time savings from improving sickness absence rates for individual GP practices.