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If you are an employer looking to address sick absence levels in your organisation, concerned about attendance management and what you can do to improve it, then I can help.

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How to get 'switched on' staff ...

My time in the Civil Service taught me a number of things. One of them was of the benefits that having a workforce of engaged and committed people can bring to a business, in that such people perform better, they are less likely to leave and they are more likely to promote the organisation with their family and friends. In short, if you want to be successful, then the business needs to get their workforce teams engaged.

But my time in the civil service also taught me how difficult it was to engage senior management themselves so that they not only understand why they should embrace the idea of employee engagement, but convince them to commit to changes that allow it. Resistance and Inertia are very often your permanent companions when trying to motive people. There is the all important question on how to go about engaging your staff-especially at a time when large groups of employees , through severe cutbacks and early release/redundancy programmes, feel disenchanted, dis-empowered and dis-engaged: the opposite of where you need them to be. Now there is no denying that trying to engage people is not straight forward, but there are a variety of proven techniques which if you can adopt (or adapt), can go a long way to allowing you to have that passionate and committed workforce that is an essential pre-requisite of a successful organisation.

I think that there are five main areas that need to be addressed if you are to be successful:

Allow people to be involved in decision making

This is a tough one, especially for those parts of the public sector who are used to just being told what to do by their political masters and in turn to tell their staff what they need to do. Managers not used to consulting (rather than informing) their teams find the concept of involving their teams in changes quite difficult and worrying. But for people to feel that they are a genuine stakeholder in the business they need to be involved when for example changes are being proposed such as reorganisations or downsizing etc. It is the staff who operate the organisations systems and processes and they can very often provide an insight into the most effective way to organise or run a service.

Encourage people to voice their views and opinions

Employees can often feel ‘lost’ in an organisation and that they are just a clog in a mighty wheel, where their views do not count or, even worse, are not sought. Any successful organisation needs to view its employees as partners in the business and feedback on the challenges that you are facing is critical to getting the temperature of the workforce and to understand what changes might be needed. Views can be encouraged and articulated in a variety of ways from online and real forums to regular team briefings where those all important voices can be heard – but the feedback loop must be genuine. It is not a ‘box ticking’ exercise.

Managers to listen to these views

It is one thing to encourage opinions but it is another thing for managers and boards to genuinely listen to those voices. Yes, people want opportunities to express their views but they also want them to be heard with an open mind. What is the point of asking for feedback if you have already decided what you are going to do? Quite often, organisations have already decided what their course of action is going to be and that their discussions with staff are little more than a ‘tick in the box’.For the relationship to be two way, managers need to keep an open mind that their proposal may in fact not be the most effective one- this doesn’t mean that management stops managing, rather it allows them to understand the impact proposals may make before deciding what to do.

People to feel well informed about changes at work

Employees feel committed to their organisations when they feel involved in changes even if they may not agree with them. If you can tell your teams what is going to happen before it happens, then they are more likely to feel that they are important to the business. Nothing is worse for team morale then people not knowing what is going on and how changes at work might affect them. I often found that it is the fear of what changes might mean that concern staff (will I have a job, will more be expected of me, what do I tell my staff? etc) and these need to be addressed. It may be that managers have no control over those changes themselves if it is a political or board level decision handed down to them to enact but by telling people what you know as soon as possible and what it might mean for them creates a level of trust that can allow real goodwill as well as cement engagement.

Saying goodbye to PUS ...

The unexpected news that Ursula Brennan the MOD Permanent Secretary is moving on took quite a few people in Whitehall circles by surprise.

It is certainly the case that Ursula had something of a rough ride being the first Female Permanent Secretary (PUS ) in a department that has the reputation of being quite aggressively masculine (i.e. how many senior military chiefs are female? Answers on a postcard please) and charged with a range of deep and substantive  cuts in that ministry, which had been already been burdened with significant funding issues. In addition, as the most senior civil servant in the MOD she had to deal with the political fall out from the Liam Fox and Adam Werrity affair- that propelled her to some kind of notice.

She is returning to the Ministry of Justice where she was Director General Corporate Performance before she joined the MOD in 2008 initially as the 2nd Permanent Secretary (2nd PUS for short) before being appointed as PUS in 2010.

She has had to preside over huge reductions to both the civilian and military work forces, which were on top of previous head count reductions in a department where employee engagement has been at a low ebb for some time.

However it is reported that she is well regarded by her senior military colleagues and the Defence Secretary (Phillip Hammond) will surely miss her- Tom McKane is going to step into the breach until a permanent replacement can be appointed and continuity and stability is one thing needed at present.

My over-riding feeling is that Mrs Brennan suffered from what you could call the ‘PUS Disease’ in that criticism was made that she, like other PUS’s were out of touch with the feelings of the staff in the department. Now in an organisation of close to 250,000 people, it is always going to be hard, if  not impossible, to understand what the shop floor feeling is, when the MOD is such a diverse outfit – people working there range from MOD Policemen and women, Scientists and Engineers to Administrators- and views can differ greatly from area to area.

But I don’t suppose it is any great secret that in general MOD staff are not a happy bunch- especially the civilians- who very often get the unfair stereotypical criticism of being over staffed and ineffective. Certainly that is not my experience and the department has had to endure significant cuts to its budget and people whilst still maintaining a strategic and critical defence capability. None of that has been easy.

The challenge to the new permanent successor to Ursula Brennan will be how to succesfully engage with a workforce that has become dis-affected over a period of time, with cuts, pay freezes, pension contribution increases and which require very strong leadership- in my view, it is a ministry like none other. It has people with different cultures through the three single services (Army, RAF & RN) and the civilian population also has its own way of working.

It will take a particular kind of person to rise to this kind of the challenge if we are not to let the Armed Forces down.

Absence Management: so why are my employees sick so often?

In my previous blog Does the public sector have a problem with sick absence? I laid out some of the generally accepted ‘knowns’ about employee sick absence i.e. what a succession of data and surveys indicate, and in this article, I am going to put some more meat onto these indicators and  how they may impact on your business if you are aiming to improve the level of employee absence in your organisation.

To recap, surveys and data suggest that on the whole:

  • sick absence is generally higher in the public sector by a good margin (probably around the 25% mark)

Now, this particular issue is a very ‘hot’ one at the moment in the context of the public sector reform that David Cameron is keen to push through as part of his ‘re-inventing Government’ initiative.(good luck with that, Dave).

Although people disagree on the level of additional sick absence that public sector workers take compared to their private sector counterparts, the evidence would seem to show that more government workers take time off. Now, part of the thinking behind why this should be is linked to a range of factors. These include the fact that :

  • absences are higher in organisations that employ larger numbers of people

A stark demonstration of this argument can be found in the 2011 CIPD Absence Management survey where the level of sick absence directly related to the numbers of people employed. For example, where less than 50 people were employed, the average worker was sick 5.6 days a year, for 50-249 staff, it was 6.4 days, 250-999 was 8.2, 1,000-4,999 was 9.2 days, but for those organisations with more than 5,000 employees sick absence was the highest at 9.6 days per person.-now that is a staggering 71% more than people working at organisations employing less than 50.

Now, why should this be? There is an argument that perhaps staff who form part of a small group know that they will be missed if they are away and feel the need to keep well and not take time off, whilst for those who work in very large enterprises, they may feel that they will not be missed and feel ‘able’ to take sick leave. However, there may be a  more basic factor in play here. Smaller companies may not be able to offer generous sick pay entitlement whilst public sector organisations do and that realisation may be a big factor in the incidence of sick absence i.e. if I am sick, I won’t (or will) get paid!

Another reason why the public sector has higher level of absences may be due to:

  • absences are higher amongst women

Now, this is a tricky one. This suggests that there is a gender bias and that women are more prone to sick absence than men. Certainly, the figures suggest that scenario but the reasons behind this phenomenon may be more complex than just being an issue of sex. Previous work in this area sponsored by the Cabinet Office in Tony Blair’s government suggested that this might be due to the fact that most Carers tend to be female and that when they need to take time off to care for someone when they have exhausted their annual leave entitlement, they may take sick leave instead.  What is relevant however is that the public sector employs more women relative to the private sector which would explain why this apparent gender bias impacts on the public sector area. But clearly, more work is needed in this area. In addition:

  • absences are lowest in London and highest in the North of England and Scotland

It is clear that apart from an organisational size and gender bias, there is also a regional differential too. According to the 2011 CIPD survey, the area of the UK where absence levels are the lowest is London with absence running at an average 6.4 days per person. The highest, by comparison, is Scotland with 10.6 days – a difference of some 65%. Now, this is likely to echo the wellness and life expectancy of regions as a whole, and figures again indicate that people on average are healthier and live longer in the capital whilst in Scotland people have poorer health and reduced life expectancy.

The public sector suffers in this respect because much of its government departments and authorities are located outside of London and its main conurbations have high levels of reported sick absence (Midlands – 10 days, Yorkshire 9 days & North East England – 9 days). What is behind these regional differences is believed to be linked to how affluent (or poor) people are and what people’s status at work is. People who are financially better off and who have control over their work environment tend to report better levels of health (e.g. someone may be able to afford gym membership, to have private medical insurance, to be able to take regular holidays etc) compared to those whose salaries are more modest and who are lower down their organisation’s structure. This, for example, explains why in the Civil Service, members of the Senior Civil Service (the Mandarins to you and more) take little sick leave, whilst the majority of the absence is taken by more junior administrative staff. The latter tend to have minimal control at their workplace (they have no one to delegate to and are usually told what to do) and are paid minimal salaries and again would indicate that they are more likely to be absent from work through sickness.

This is a fascinating area and whilst root causes of the level of absences are still subject to a lot of opinion and discussion, these factors can help you predict where absences may occur and whereas an employer you may need to concentrate your efforts

'Taking Sickies': Does the Public Sector Really have a Problem?

The fairly regular debate of the amount of sick absence or ‘sickies’  that public sector workers take, compared to those in the private sector, has got public attention again with the release of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey and Annual Population Survey Public sector workers more like to take sickies. Overall the surveys were good news in that the highlights were that:

· Between 1993 and 2011 the number of days ‘lost’ per worker through sick absence fell from 7.2 days to 4.5 days – or a 37% decline 

· Between 1993 and 2011, the total number of days lost through sick absence fell from 178 million to 131 million – a reduction of 26% However media attention was inevitably drawn to the suggested disparity between the levels of absence in the public and private sector.

The Daily Telegraph for example, argued that “This means that public sector workers are 63% more likely to take time off then their private sector counterparts”. This argument is based on the ONS data that indicated that 2.6% of public sector working hours were lost through sickness compared to 1.6% in the private sector – a 63% differential. However to properly and intelligently understand these figures my sense it that you need to appreciate two things. 

Firstly, as the ONS said in its summary, that there are differences in the types of jobs done in the two sectors and that some sectors have a higher likelihood of the incidence of sickness. It has generally been very difficult for surveys to take into account that it can be very hard – sometimes impossible – to find a private sector equivalent to some public sector positions- and this can corrupt any meaningful analysis. 

Secondly, I think it is critical to understand that the ONS statistics come not from employers but from interviews and answers given by a selection of individuals in employment when asked how much of their working time cannot be completed because of sickness or injury. This point is important because these results are based on what employees say rather than what may be recorded by employers- which tends to be a more reliable benchmark. For example, the 2011 Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) Absence Management report that surveyed nearly 600 employers (covering 2 million employees) on sick absence indicated the following: 

· the number of days lost was 3.4% (ONS: 1.8%) 

· the number of days lost in the public sector was 4.0% (ONS:2.6%) 

· the number of days lost in the private sector was 3.1% (ONS:: 1.6%) 

· average number of days sick absence per employee was 7.7 days (ONS:4.5) 

· average number of days sick absence per public sector employee was 9.1 days 

· average number of days sick absence per private sector employee was 7.1 days 

Now according to the CIPD 2011 survey the disparity between the public and private sector was 29% rather than the 63% referred to with the ONS data. This is supported by the 28% difference between average levels of absence (9.1 v 7.1) in the two sectors. I think this helps to illustrate the fact that it is very difficult to produce particularly accurate absence management data because what is available are surveys either of employees or of employers. In addition, the ONS concentrates on the % of hours lost whilst the CIPD survey generally looks at days lost. The difference in the two surveys indicate for example, that individuals are reporting between 40-50% fewer absences than that of employers which could possibly be explained by the populations that both surveys cover.

However, there are consistencies in these and indeed other significant surveys that allow you to confidently say a number of things:

  • sick absence is generally higher in the public sector by a good margin (probably around the 25% mark)
  • absences are higher in organisations that employ larger numbers of people
  • absences are higher amongst women
  • absences are lowest in London and highest in the North of England and Scotland

These are not new findings and those of us who specialise in the area of absence management and well being will be familiar with these findings and we would argue that there are very sound reasons for the above. These would include the synergy that for example most public sector organisations tend to employ a substantial number of people, they generally employ higher numbers of women, are in the main located outside of London etc. Also linked into this is almost certainly the fact that public sector workers –especially in the current difficult climate – are feeling less engaged with their employer (the Government) which is often a driving force behind absence levels and the fact that public sector employees tend to have more generous sick pay entitlements. Where does this leave employers keen to address absence in their organisation? I think these surveys help to give some insight into the factors behind high levels of absence and that you do need to consider strategies to address these concerns, especially if you employ large numbers of people, have a gender bias in your workforce and if you employ people outside of the Capital. Just why these are factors and what you can do about it will be the subject of my next blog, so keep reading!