Business Essentials: There are too many missed beats in the Met

The country's largest police force is trying to arrest high levels of sickness absence, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

"Can you tell the boss I'm not well and won't be in today?" For most organisations, it's a familiar phone call, but the Metropolitan Police is becoming more accustomed than it would like to managing sickness absence.

Having enough officers and civilian staff is vital when you're trying to police one of the biggest cities in the world, says Gordon Davison, director of people development. But with sickness absence currently resulting in the loss of the equivalent of 100 officers a month, the Met has a problem it needs to address.

In fact, it has already reduced officer absence thanks to a range of initiatives. "In 2001, we were losing 11.5 days per officer and we have brought that down to 8.6," says Mr Davison. "Given that the average number of days lost to sickness absence in the private sector is around seven, and that you'd expect it to be higher among police officers due to the risk of injury on duty, we are pleased with the result. But we still feel we can get better."

The picture is less rosy among civilian staff, he adds. "We have not been nearly as successful in tackling the problem here, and are still losing around 11 working days per person per year. It's a figure that has remained stubbornly high for a year or so now."

At the heart of the Met's strategy for dealing with sickness absence is a comprehensive occupational health service. Its senior health physician, Dr Eileen Cahill-Canning, says: "Early intervention has been important, particularly with physical injuries. The hard work and support given to officers by the health department - coupled with a programme involving the funding of certain operations where there is a long waiting time on the NHS - has meant that many officers are getting back to work much quicker."

Also significant has been the Met's policy of ensuring that unsuitable people are not sent to the most distressing crime scenes, and that those who are called in are fully supported through, for example, trauma debriefings.

Meanwhile, health promotion campaigns have been introduced for both officers and civilian staff. The drive started early this year and is split into four parts: healthy eating, fitness, stress and cancer awareness.

Sanctions have played a part, too. For example, the Met has put a bar on promotion for those who have unsatisfactory absenteeism without good reason. Return-to-work interviews have encouraged managers to stop this happening in the first place.

But a strategy for stress management, says the Met, has been one of the most important measures introduced in the past year. This includes guidance on how staff can recognise stress both in themselves and others and how to take early action. A staff survey exploring where stress levels are highest will, Mr Davison hopes, help the Met deal with this issue even more efficiently in the future.

He adds: "We are open to advice in any area that will help us keep our staff well and in work."

www.met.police.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"One of the first steps is to measure absence levels. This allows organisations to identify any problem and then the best way to tackle it.

"Training and involving line managers in absence management is also crucial to reducing absence levels. Managers need good communication skills to encourage employees to discuss any problems they may have at an early stage, so that they can be given support or advice before matters escalate.

"Organisations also need to provide support for employees who do take time off work sick. This might include the involvement of occupational health professionals or changes to work patterns.

"However, all these efforts will be undermined unless people management policies, which encourage motivation and commitment, are in place."

Professor Ivan Robertson, managing director of business psychologists Robertson Cooper

"The Met is grappling with a problem facing many organisations: a rise in sickness absence where the reported cause is stress or mental health-related problems. The day-to-day pressures include accelerating change and a lack of control over work.

"The Met is sensibly pursuing a twin strategy of tightening attendance management and seeking to provide support where required. Following through with this strategy should lead to a reduction in stress-related absence and an increase in job satisfaction and work performance."

Richard Silander, head of employment policy and reward, Unilever UK

"It appears there is still an issue with the civilian staff. Recognising that different approaches may be needed for different groups of employees is vital. Good case management, with occupational health partnering personnel and line managers, sends a powerful message to all employees: those who are genuinely ill will be supported; those who are not will realise that the issue will be taken seriously.

"Stress absences can result from pressures in other areas. We believe Unilever's work-life policies - health awareness, flexible working and unpaid leave - are key to our success in managing absence."

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