"Sickness rates have dropped to eight days per year, saving the council £1 million" Green

How the East Sussex County Council overhauled its absence management programme, by Leatham Green, Assistant Director for Personnel and Training.

East Sussex County Council, on the southeast coast, covers a population of over 700,000. The council employs more than 15,000 staff.

Three years ago, the absence rate was relatively high at over nine days per person each year. This cost the council approximately £7.5 million a year. At one point there were 250 staff signed off on long-term sick leave.

East Sussex was also under pressure to become a caring employer. The Government has made it clear that all organisations – and especially the public sector – have a duty to staff to look after their health and wellbeing.

This new obligation has caused many employers to revamp their occupational health services. East Sussex is no different.

Basically, the team was overstretched. It had one full-time adviser and an occupational health physician who spent half a day each week with the council.

What was done?

I moved into my current position from a post in organisational development two years ago. Since then, the council has overhauled its approach to sickness and occupational health.

The first step was to beef up the occupational health team. The council created two and a half full-time occupational health adviser posts, and gave staff more opportunity to access a doctor.

A series of tough measures have also been brought in to reduce the absence rates. New members of staff are not entitled to sick pay until they have reached a year’s service.

Those who are off sick for longer than four weeks, or more than twice in six months, are automatically referred to an occupational health physician.

But it has not just been about cracking down on staff. A series of schemes have been launched to offer the workforce a comprehensive wellbeing package.

Staff now have access to many services:

  • free smoking cessation clinics
  • other paid-for schemes, such as reflexology, slimming classes, massage and pilates (all at around £15 a session)
  • a tailored personal training programme called FitBug
  • a once-yearly image consultancy workshop, Colour Me Beautiful

On top of this, staff have access to a network of 150 local counsellors, with the council providing five free sessions to help solve work and personal problems if needed.

All these services are made available to staff at reduced rates.

The impact of the changes has been immediate. Sickness rates have dropped to eight days per year, saving the council £1 million.

In adult social care, sickness rates have dropped even further, from 18 days to 13.

Staff morale has also moved in the right direction. Surveys show 73 per cent of staff enjoy working for the council, up 6 per cent since last year.

John Shepherd, an Assistant Manager in the Pensions Department, is just one who is happy with the changes. He is taking part in weekly pilates classes to help him avoid back pain.

“I have turned 55 and I’m well aware there are always potential problems with your back as you get older. Spending 45 minutes at the class each Monday has definitely made a difference. If you’re working crouched over a PC all day, this can really help.”

Key personnel and resources

My role involved overseeing all the changes, although there has been a close working relationship between human resources (HR) and occupational health.Communication has been one of the key reasons for the success of the approach. Changes and new schemes have been promoted on TV screens in the staff canteen, at team briefings and on the internet.

Meanwhile, the only extra cost to the council has been funding the additional occupational health advisers and increased doctor time. This totals £100,000 a year.

We have informed staff we want to offer them the best service we can, but we need them to be fair to us as well. It is working for everyone and I think most staff really enjoy themselves at work now.

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How could it have been done better?

It is important to be radical if you want to overhaul services the way East Sussex has: My view is the following:

Stopping sick pay in the first year of employment was not popular in some quarters. But it has made a huge difference. We are flexible and can operate compassionately. We had an employee who was diagnosed with cancer just before joining us and, of course, we paid sick pay while she was absent having treatment during the first year of employment.

The Colour Me Beautiful scheme was another that surprised some, but why not, if it makes staff feel better? If you feel good about yourself, you will operate with greater confidence and achieve better results for the team.

So you have to ask yourself, could we have been more radical and done more? There are areas where we could have been. For example, we could have been quicker in implementing the tighter trigger regime to automatically refer people to occupational health when they are off long-term or have frequent sickness.

Next steps

The council has started to consider expanding its programme of wellbeing initiatives. A pilot is about to start offering staff access to physiotherapy to help alleviate musculo-skeletal problems. East Sussex is also doing its bit to share good practice with the local public sector. It helps manage and deliver wellbeing initiatives for 16 other organisations, including Brighton and Hove City Council and the local fire service.

It is important the public sector works together in delivering the best services it can. We feel this is something we can offer others and will continue to look to do that in the future.

Further information
Contact: Leatham Green
Assistant Director for Personnel and Training
telephone: (01273) 481 415
email: leatham.green@eastsussex.gov.uk