#NQ3 Sickness absence crackdown

A sickness absence crackdown led by the NOMS Attendance team is underway in the NPS. However, their plan for a “robust approach” to reducing days lost to sick leave by being “compassionate and sympathetic” may be falling short. Local Napo reps report the robustness outweighs any benevolence they were aiming for.

When thinking about sickness absence policies, it is worth remembering they are written with one aim: to allow employers to dismiss staff for absence without legal recourse. If the employer does not follow procedure or flouts legislation such as the Equalities Act 2010, the dismissal can of course be challenged. Napo’s local and National reps do a brilliant job of exploiting these failings to ensure justice for members at final stage hearings.

Napo has campaigned for meaningful sickness absence stats since the probation service was split. Although these have yet to be provided, we know that sick leave initially sky rocketed due to problems caused for staff by TR. The Attendance team has stated that in most cases, sickness absence is caused by stress and muscular problems which can also be caused by stress.

Since the project began in November 2015, the number of days lost to sickness absence has fallen from 12.25 to 11.2 –still higher than the NOMS national target of 9 days. It is difficult to say why it has dropped, but in the last edition of NQ, Nicki Kenny, Napo co-chair, Family Court Section, attributed the lowest ever social worker absence of 6.5 days to: “The aggressive way in which staff are pushed through the absence management procedure.”

The NOMS Attendance project comprises of:

Decision maker workshops and first line manger training: organised in each NPS division by the Attendance project. I recently attended a workshop on capability hearings i.e. whether an individual can provide a “regular and effective service”. Emphasis was placed on ensuring processes are followed to avoid successful challenges at employment tribunals.

Monthly trade union attendance meetings: with the POA, PCS, Prison Governors Association and others. I attend on behalf of Napo as National Official and lead for health and safety.

Monthly meetings for ACOs: To discuss complex cases for the attendance team to take forward.

Wellbeing: is the sugar coating on the bitter pill of sickness absence management. While there is little discussion about wellbeing at the monthly Attendance project meetings, material on the NOMS Wellbeing Zone give an insight into the thinking. Articles such as “If life and work are getting you down then just… relax!” could be useful – but not if the underlying work-related problems causing the stress are not addressed. See NQ2 for Napo’s view on why wellbeing is the current vogue for employers.

Support and Sustain (S&S): started with “deep dive meetings” looking at the problems faced by nine NPS LDU cluster areas in SW London, the North East, Midlands and Wales chosen because of their higher than average sickness absence levels. A NOMS officer at each site ensures the policy is being applied fairly and consistently. Since the start of the project there has been a fall in days lost at some sites. Where sickness does not come down, the team will “think outside the box” and utilise approaches that have been successful at other sites. Initial feedback from Napo reps in the S&S areas and from our National reps (who rep members at final stage hearings) about the impact of the attendance project is as follows:

  • Requested stress risk assessments not being completed.
  • Management of attendance policy applied different in each area.
  • Managers increasing work-related stress by calling members who are off sick and pressuring them to return to work.
  • Members lured into “informal” meetings without representation only to find several managers are present making it seem very formal.
  • Policy is applied irrespective of disability or child care issues.
  • Presenteeism (attending work when sick) – staff fear being put on improvement notices.
  • All members that have received letters are off with issues that are seen as disability related. Some sickness caused by delay in ordering “reasonable adjustment” specialist equipment and Napo reps are having to fight to get this recorded as disability related sickness absence rather than otherwise.
  • Members not on sickness absence trigger points are being called in to discuss working efficiently and regularly.
  • Lack of local management discretion and misinterpretation of procedures.
  • Communication problems with shared service and HR reps.
  • Policy for long-term sickness absence is vague and gives leeway to individual managers to interpret individually.

Napo is not opposed to attempts to cut down sickness absence levels as there are implications for other staff when colleagues are off sick. But there must be recognition by the employers that there are occasions when a worker has to go sick and when this happens it should be dealt with sympathetically. There also has to be recognition that work is sometimes the cause of sickness.

Napo want to get to the stage where issues are rectified before someone has no option but to take sick leave, but there is still some way to go. Napo are concerned that preseneteeism is increasing. If we continue to see overzealous application of the Attendance project, presenteeism will continue to rise. What is needed to bring down sickness absence levels is a less robust application of procedures and instead for the NPS to work with Napo to address work related problems that cause sickness absence.

Sarah Friday
National Official, Health and Safety


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