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Audit Commission - Briefing shows large variation in number of NHS sick days across England

Levels of staff sickness absence in the National Health Service (NHS) vary dramatically across the country, with the North of England showing the highest levels, an Audit Commission briefing has found.

Managing sickness absence in the NHS finds a significant variation in rates between types of trusts around the country, and between different departments within trusts. It finds that more NHS staff take sick leave in areas of high deprivation. Junior staff are also more prone to taking time off sick than their more senior colleagues.

But these factors cannot explain all the variation, which must be due in part to differences in the way NHS organisations manage, motivate and support their staff. Nor do they explain why long term sickness seems to be a particular issue for the NHS. By understanding and tackling these factors, many organisations could reduce their sickness levels to those of their peers.

The report finds that if the NHS focuses on the causes that local management can most influence, the NHS could increase staff productivity, improve morale and save £290 million.

Professor Dame Carol Black, National Director for Health and Work, said:

‘This discerning analysis of sickness absence across the discrete organisations of the NHS confirms the high costs of impaired health and well-being.

' Unexplained variations between trusts highlight the importance of good management practice in minimising the causes of sickness absence of staff at every level. The findings of the report will prompt reflection in every trust, and review with remedial action in many.’

To reduce sickness absence rates, the briefing recommends that managers:

  • review their organisation's sickness absence rates and compare with others
  • identify specific staff groups with a particularly high sickness absence rate
  • calculate the cost of sickness absence to their organisation
  • consider whether their organisation could reduce its sickness absence and what savings could be made.

Once they have identified whether there are improvements and savings to be made, NHS managers can adopt proven approaches to improving their efficiency and managing their sickness absence. Several Audit Commission tools are available to help them.

Andy McKeon, Managing Director of Health at the Audit Commission, said:

'There are some very good reasons why sickness absence rates in the NHS differ between organisations, and even between departments. Managers need to be realistic about what they can achieve and accept that some staff, such as frontline workers who deal with sickly patients all day, are likely to have more days off sick than, for example, those without direct patient care responsibilities.

‘But these kinds of factors do not explain all the variation, nor, for example, the level of long-term sickness in the NHS. Health trusts can make big savings and improve the wellbeing of staff by identifying where they have unexplained high levels of sickness, and targeting efforts at reducing them. Our briefing provides a good starting point for this.'

Notes to editors

  1. The Audit Commission is an independent watchdog, driving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in local public services to deliver better outcomes for everyone.
  2. Our work across local government, health, housing, community safety and fire and rescue services means that we have a unique perspective. We promote value for money for taxpayers.
  3. On 13 August 2010 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that he plans to disband the Audit Commission. His intention is to have new arrangements in place for auditing England's public bodies by 2012/13.

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