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Sickness Absence In The NHS - What If We Looked At It Differently?

At the risk of either stating the obvious, or being devil's advocate there is something about managing sickness absence in the NHS I am curious about.

For as long as I can remember (I worked in HR in the mid-80's) there has been a focus on managing sickness absence in the NHS and in the decades that followed we have changed, or improved the way we collect and collate the data, the way we forecast trends, and the way we manage individual cases of sickness whether they be long or short term. Other employers and sectors have also been managing sickness absence, and there have been many innovations, processes, systems, books, training workshops, and research studies on the topic.

I am all for understanding the data and metrics of any organisation, and using tangible indicators to understand the state of the workforce, and also I am all for supporting staff when they are sick, or need other support, and, I am pretty sure that the support given to those who are off sick has improved over the decades, and, that the rates of sickness absence have improved in some sectors and workplaces too.

What I do wonder though is:

  • Are our workforces in the NHS truly more healthy, well, vital, vibrant, and productive from our sickness absence management endeavours?

  • Have stress, mental and physical health, anxiousness, exhaustion, burnout, even incidences of suicide from the stresses and strains of work in the NHS improved?

  • Do we ever find sustainable levels of sickness absence (e.g. when the percentages go down, can we sustain keeping them down?) or do we have to constantly work at keeping the percentages down?

  • Has our intense focus on sickness absence paid off?

What if there was another way to look at this?

Have you ever looked at something for too long so that what you are looking at becomes distorted, or, you fail to see beyond the image you are looking at? I know I have. Have you ever isolated something amongst other variants and looked at that without looking at the greater whole? Have you ever made something a focus and seen improvements but after a while the improvements stop gaining traction, or require continuous effort to keep them going?

Those of us who work in and around the NHS know the NHS is called the National Health Service, but, to all intents and purposes it is actually a national sickness service. Yes, it does many many amazingly brilliant, and stupendous things every day for so many of our population. And unquestionably staff in the NHS are dedicated, committed, hard working, and passionate about their work. What if in constantly monitoring and going for reducing sickness absence statistics we are making the focus all about 'sickness' and improving sickness and not so much about enabling and empowering wellness amongst over a million staff?

We know we need to continue to improve workplace wellbeing, and that already great strides have taken place, and yet we know there is more to go. We also know how exhausted we are by being 'ticked boxed' (or sheep dipped) through initiatives, and, by living in a system that can feel overly run from a deficit model rather than a focus on assets that builds upon what works. We also know people can often feel like pawns in a system where they are dealt with in a one size fits all as regards sickness absence when personal circumstance is key. And, to some, some approaches to sickness absence management can feel punitive, and not evolving of the workforce to grow to new levels of responsibility and wellness, and it can feel that we are not making work about people, but about statistics, numbers and targets.

That said, (and I may have lost you by now as your observations and experiences aren't what I am outlining here), what if we turned the volume right down on sickness absence - yes light touch following the policies we have if needed, yes keeping some degree of monitoring going in the back ground but, what if we shifted the focus to wellbeing and wellness?And, we monitored how well staff are, and we learnt how to monitor wellness, and how to have measures of wellness with statistics too - so that we could instead build on the wellness of the workforce and not try and bring down the sickness absence levels?

Isn't it more inspiring to build upon what is, and to bring the whole workforce along with us from a foundation of a basic level of wellness/fitness/wellbeing, than to try and keep the lid on sickness absence?

How amazing would it be if at the end of a working shift or week our manager/supervisor/leader called us in to celebrate that they had observed our hydration levels had improved?

Or that people in the team had actually managed to get to the bathroom a few times during their shift, or that most of the team had taken a moment during a busy day to have a cup of tea?

How empowering and encouraging would it be that we began to understand more about workplace wellness because the conversation was on wellness and wellbeing rather than on sickness absence?

And that we become aware together of the things in our working days/shifts that support, and that don't support?

And what if a focus on building wellness/wellbeing which in turn, as a ripple effect, actually chipped away at sickness absence without the incessant need to manage and monitor it?

Id love to hear from any of you where the focus on sickness absence is turned down or off, and where the focus is primarily on wellness and wellbeing at work...

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