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NHS urged to cut £290m from staff sickness bill

Wide variation in staff sickness found across regions and professions

Louise Prime

Friday, 11 February 2011

Levels of NHS staff sickness absence vary enormously across England and Wales and between different pay grades, the Audit Commission reports. It says in its latest briefing Managing sickness absence in the NHS that tackling the problem could save £290 million.

There is a huge variation nationally in the percentage of total working days lost to sickness absence, from 1.6% to 6.8%. The North East Strategic Health Authority was the region with the highest average levels of staff sickness absence in the NHS during the reporting period, July 2009 to June 2010, and London SHA had the lowest.

Healthcare assistants were the professional group with the highest level of staff sickness absence, at 6.5% on average. They were followed closely by ambulance staff (6.3%) and nurses, midwives and health visitors (5.2%). This, said the Audit Commission, is “as one might expect” for frontline staff. Yet medical and dental staff had an average absence rate of just 2.1% in trusts.

The report found that the estimated direct cost of staff sickness absence to each NHS organisation was a median of £3.3 million every year, with the highest figure £20m. But the Audit Commission points out that there are huge additional indirect costs, for example for temporary staff cover, which are estimated at £180 million for PCTs.

The Commission sets out in its briefing how managers of organisations can find more help and advice to tackle high rates of sickness absence, and improve efficiency.

It argues that: “By understanding and tackling the factors causing some of this variation, the NHS could increase staff productivity, improve morale and save £290 million.” In order to achieve this, it recommends that managers:

  • review their organisation’s sickness absence rates and benchmark against 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

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