Thursday, August 20, 2009

It makes you sick

Having spent some time yesterday in a dismissal appeal under the employer's sickness procedure I was struck by the press coverage of figures for sickness absence in the National Health Service from the interim report of the Boorman review.

This is an important topic in employee relations, but one which is almost never covered sensibly or usefully when reported. Indeed the constant refrain that (on average) public sector workers have higher rates of sickness absence than private sector workers plays second (or maybe third) fiddle in the cacophony of general attacks upon us (over our pensions, or the myth of our relative job security). Whilst Boorman covers a lot of ground, the press coverage lends itself to headlines which focus simply on higher rates of sickness absence than the private sector and the impact upon the service from this.

Obviously there is a shared interest, between employees (and therefore our trade unions) and employers in reducing sickness absence. No one wants to be ill, and employers want to minimise absences for cost and service reasons. However, people will always fall ill (particularly you might think if they work in the health service and therefore come into contact with people who are using the health service because they are ill...) Some people will fall ill more than other people.

There are some positive things that can be done around employee wellbeing, and around good management to improve morale. However the reporting of statistics which we saw yesterday and today probably won't encourage these positive approaches - instead it will encourage those reactionaries in management positions who wrongly believe that a punitive approach to sickness absence can have a positive impact upon people and organisations. UNISON's response is sound, but we'll struggle to get sustained attention for a nuanced and positive response when it's so much easier to bash public sector workers.

To be honest I would be alarmed if rates of sickness absence in large public service organisations were as low as they are in parts of the private sector - because that would simply mean that workers were under the cosh to come in when they didn't feel well enough. If workers in better unionised areas, with civilised sick pay arrangements record more sickness absence than those working elsewhere that may be no bad thing.

If you don't feel well then you shouldn't be at work. And the job of the trade unions is, amongst other things, to protect our members when employers seek to adopt a punitive approach to sickness absence.

I may be some sort of dinosaur, but I would rather live in a world where you couldn't be sacked because of genuine sickness absence. Yesterday's press reports will give some unwelcome encouragement to those who disagree.

1 comment:

Jim Ennis said...

You are far from a dinosaur Jon, if you are you are an enlightened one.

My partner is a staff nurse at Salford Hope and worked a 12 hour shift yesterday with only a 30 minute break. No time to eat properly or drink enough fluid to stay properly hydrated. On top of this she was the shift "co-ordinator" taking responsibility for all staff and patients on the wardas well as her own 8 patients, all elderly and acute.

Time they addressed staffing levels and shift patterns and enabled staff to take reasonable breaks,(though we know it won't happen) then maybe people wouldn't fall ill as much. How anyone can adopt a healthy lifestyle under current arrangements is beyond me.