Feedback from open forum meetings to discuss the sickness absence policy

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1 Feedback from open forum meetings to discuss the sickness absence policy As you will have read or been told about in recent months, the HR team are currently leading on a project to review the Service s policy, procedures and data reporting arrangements for the management of sickness absence. As well as considering our own professional views, we have consulted with employees, managers and Trade Union representatives across the Service, to ensure that problems with the current system were properly understood at all levels before we made recommendations for change. We met directly with SMT and each of the Trade Unions, whilst employees and managers were invited to attend one of a number of open forum meetings which were held across the county in late May / early June. We considered all of the feedback received, and this elped us to draft recommendations for change which were accepted by SMT, and which have now been written into draft revised policies and procedures which have been issued for consultation. Below we give a response from the Project Board (Matthew Warren, Andy Watson, Hayley Measures & Sam Smith) to the key themes raised from this initial phase of the consultation process. Feedback has been grouped in to eight key areas, and we have given a summary of the main areas in which feedback was given and our response to this feedback so you can see that, whilst everything has been considered, some suggestions will be taken up whilst others won t be, and the reasons for this. Area of feedback Feedback received Our response Policy Not easy to find the current policy. We agree the current policy isn t easy to find. We will ensure the new policy is published on the intranet and that Policy should be in employee handbook. we communicate out to all staff where they can find it. Don t put it on DMS. It is not practical to publish the whole policy as part of the Employee Handbook but we agree that there should be a reference to the sickness policy within the Employee Handbook and details on where to find more information. We know that the Employee Handbook needs to be reviewed and we will ensure that any revised edition continues to include reference to the sickness policy. We do plan to put the revised policy on DMS. As well as it being Service policy that all documents are stored within DMS, it is the easiest way to ensure that employees and managers can always access the current version of the policy. However we do appreciate that not everyone has

2 access to or uses DMS on a regular basis, therefore we will also ensure that the policy is accessible in other ways, e.g. through the intranet, hard copies on station etc. Avoid long policies, people switch off early on. Avoid jargon. We agree! Although there is necessarily a lot of information that needs to be contained within the sickness policy, we have sought to make the draft revised policy as short as possible. To help us do this, we have also developed a manager s toolkit, which contains practical, more detailed guidance, template letters, checklists and other documents. We have also tried to avoid jargon, ensuring any unfamiliar terms are properly explained. Important to have clarification of roles and responsibilities within the policy. Managers need to understand it is their responsibility to manage sickness absence issues within their teams, and be held accountable if they do not. We believe that the draft revised policy clearly explains the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved including employees, managers, HR and Occupational Health. We believe that clarifying roles and responsibilities will help ensure that we create a sickness absence management system which is transparent and fair to employees, with appropriate involvement of both HR and Occupational Health helping ensure consistency of approach across different parts of the Service. SMT want the revised policy to make it clear that it is managers first and foremost who are responsible for managing sickness absence, with guidance, advice and support provided from the Human Resources Group and Occupational Health as appropriate. We believe that the draft revised policy will help to ensure that managers have the confidence to manage sickness absence issues within Page 2 of 17

3 their teams as they will know what their responsibilities are, but also where they can go to get advice, guidance and support. As part of the roll-out of the new policy, we plan to provide training for all line managers across the Service, so they understand their responsibilities in managing sickness absence issues, and to give them the skills to apply the policy in real situations. Policy does not focus on supporting people to get them back to work. Trigger points are seen as a negative thing, sounds too much like a disciplinary step. Absence management reports make people feel in trouble not cared for Encourages people to come in to work when they shouldn t, sometimes scared to book sick. Policy needs to be more flexible allowing action to be taken that is proportionate to the seriousness of the sickness issue. Guideline examples should be used rather than rigid rules to allow fairness Must drive responsibility for managing sickness back to line managers We believe that the sickness absence management system needs to be more flexible, that managers should be able to use their judgement to decide when formal action should be taken, and they should be able to take action that is proportionate to the situation. However, it is also important to ensure managers can t easily shy away from taking action, even in those situations where they clearly should. That s why the draft revised policy requires managers to progress with formal Absence Management Review meetings unless there are clear exceptional circumstances which would mean it was not appropriate to proceed with a formal meeting these must be justified in writing, and be authorised by the next level of management. More guidance for managers on how to determine if exceptional circumstances exist will be given in the sickness absence management toolkit. Best practice suggests that an organisation s sickness absence management policy should be able to support employees who are genuinely sick, and help them get back to work wherever possible - but at the same time it must be able to balance this against the needs of the organisation. This is why a good sickness absence management policy will always contain clear guidance on trigger points (the Page 3 of 17

4 level at which the organisation believes absence levels are too high, regardless of whether the individual is genuinely sick or not). We have included clear trigger points within the draft revised policy. However, by putting the responsibility for managing sickness absence issues back with managers and giving them the skills and support to make decisions which are proportionate to the seriousness of the situation, it is possible to have a sickness absence management system which balances the needs of employees with the needs of the Service. This is what we believe we have achieved with our revised policy. Sometimes the most important thing is how the policy is worded, as this can easily give (or remove) the impression that action under the sickness absence management policy is a disciplinary step. We believe that the draft revised policy is worded in a way that demonstrates that the fundamental purpose of the policy is to support people back to work wherever possible, but at the same time recognising that the Service can, and should, take action where an individual continues to sustain an unacceptably high level of absence. Needs to be a more integrated process. Need to understand how sickness policy fits with capability policy. There is nothing in the current policy about ending contracts due to ill health apparently The current capability policy refers only to matters of performance capability. We recognised early on that this was an issue. Whilst at all times we hope to avoid it, we must recognise that there may be times when there is no alternative to ending someone s employment on the grounds of ill-health related capability. Page 4 of 17

5 We have therefore drafted a separate new ill-health capability policy & procedure, which should only be followed when it is agreed by a case conference involving management, HR & Occupational Health that the normal sickness absence management procedures have been reasonably exhausted. Having a procedure to follow in these circumstances will ensure that people are treated fairly and consistently. We have also recognised that it s important to link to other relevant policies to ensure an integrated process. For example, the ill-health capability policy links to the ill-health retirement process. There are also links to the Training Centre s Return to Work policy and to other relevant HR policies and procedures, e.g. if it is believed that someone has taken sick leave when they are not genuinely sick, this is a disciplinary matter and therefore there is a link to the established disciplinary procedures. Policy does not recognise or celebrate good attendance. This is a difficult one, as most sickness absence policies will naturally focus on management of unacceptable levels of sickness absence. There are two main difficulties associated with celebrating good attendance. Firstly it can be easy to miss people out, particularly when the majority of employees do not have a sickness absence problem. Secondly, having a reward for good attendance can encourage people to come to work even when they are genuinely sick, for fear of missing out on the reward (particularly if it is financial). It s for these reasons that this a suggestion we haven t taken forward to the draft revised policy, but this is a decision that may be reviewed in the future. Page 5 of 17

6 Management of sickness absence Consistency is required when applying trigger points and when an employee is playing the system. Inconsistencies over use of return to work interviews. Review periods should be managed fairly and consistently. How well it is managed depends upon the line manager, some are great, others not good. Sickness certified by a Doctor should have different trigger points and should be managed differently. Monitoring should be broken down by odd days and certified. Regular short term absences should be monitored more seriously. We agree that consistency of approach is vital to the effective management of sickness absence issues across the Service. We believe that having a central HR and a central Occupational Health team who both have an overview of sickness issues across the Service and who are appropriately involved in supporting managers to address sickness absence issues will help ensure consistency of approach across different parts of the Service. As stated above, we will be providing training for all line managers as part of the roll-out of the revised policy, so they understand their responsibilities in managing sickness absence issues, and to give them the skills to apply the policy in real situations. This is something we have not been able to implement within the draft revised policy. It would be difficult to manage sickness absence issues in different ways, depending on whether it was supported by a Doctor s fit note or not, & there is a significant risk that employees would simply be encouraged to be signed off by a Doctor for all periods of sickness absence, possibly leading them to be away from work for longer than they might otherwise have been. Best practice is clear that managing sickness absence should focus firstly on the level of absence (once it has breached a trigger point and therefore become of an unacceptable level to the Service) & secondly on the reasons for that absence. Once the reasons are known, management can decide what appropriate action to take, dependant on the seriousness of the situation. We have reflected this approach in our draft revised policy. Page 6 of 17

7 Managers need more information/background on sickness absence and history. Line manager needs an awareness of any illness, not necessarily great detail. Sick notes should be sent directly to OH and should only be shared with line manager at the individual s say-so. Need simple recording and access of data; managers need this data to be able to manage. We agree that managers need to have more information to better be able to manage sickness absence within their teams. SMT want the revised policy to make it clear that it is managers first and foremost who are responsible for managing sickness absence, with guidance, advice and support provided from the Human Resources Group and Occupational Health as appropriate. This approach mirrors best practice, and therefore why the draft revised policy requires employees to book sick directly to their line manager, so that managers can be aware of the circumstances surrounding an individual s absence as soon as possible, and therefore start to take any appropriate necessary action as soon as possible. This is also why the draft new policy requires sick notes to be sent directly to managers, not to Occupational Health. To support managers in their responsibility to manage sickness absence, we are also revising the way in which we provide data on sickness absence levels. A weekly report will be sent to local management to notify them of any sickness taken by members of their team, and if any trigger points have been breached. Overview reports will be sent to senior management so that they can maintain an appropriate organisational overview. Managers should have to justify their decisions and in particular state why if they deem no action is appropriate We agree and during the first phase of the consultation process we received a lot of feedback to say that managers often took no action, even in situations where it was clear they should. The draft revised policy requires managers to progress with formal Absence Management Review meetings unless Page 7 of 17

8 there are clear exceptional circumstances which would mean it was not appropriate to proceed with a formal meeting these must be justified in writing, and be authorised by the next level of management. More guidance for managers on how to determine if exceptional circumstances exist will be given in the sickness absence management toolkit. We believe that this approach will help to ensure that managers are being fair to employees and that employees across the organisation are being treated consistently. Use flowcharts where possible, helps to understand process We agree that flowcharts can be useful to help people understand a process in overview. Responsibilities Line managers Have responsibility taken away from them too quickly Managers need more guidance on what to ask in management referrals Need guidance from HR to address the issues Managers have different interpretations of the policy May need to be taught soft skill approach to managing sickness We have included a flowchart within the draft revised policy, which also shows who is responsible for which elements of the procedure. However it is important to note that a flowchart can only ever give an overview, and both managers and employees should refer to the full policy document to read about the procedures in more detail. We agree with all of these points, and, as stated above, SMT want the revised policy to make it clear that it is managers first and foremost who are responsible for managing sickness absence. We have therefore proposed within the draft revised policy that absence management is addressed by as local a level of management as we feel is appropriate to the seriousness of the issue, and the toolkit will provide managers with more guidance on how to complete an effective management Page 8 of 17

9 referral to Occupational Health. We know that managers have had different interpretations of the policy in the past and we believe that the draft revised policy removes much of the ambiguity that existed previously. In addition, The HR team fully intends to support and guide managers in addressing sickness absence issues within their teams, and the draft revised procedure requires a member of the HR Group to be involved in formal Absence Review Meetings from stage 2, to help ensure that managers are considering all the issues and circumstances in a particular case before deciding what action to take. This will also help to ensure consistency of approach across different areas of the Service. Finally, we agree that managers can t just be given a new policy and be expected to get on with it, and there will be a full training programme for all managers to attend as part of the launch of the new policy. This will also start to give managers the soft skills they need to more effectively manage sickness absence. These skills will then be further developed through coaching and support from the Human Resources Group, as managers deal with particular cases. HR Ensuring a consistent approach is maintain for all employees Advisery service Educating managers in dealing with sickness absence HR should be involved when sickness issue needs escalating Again, we agree with all these points. As stated above, the role of the Human Resources Group is to help ensure that the revised policy & procedures are implemented consistently across the Service, and to support, advise and guide managers in managing sickness absence issues. Also as stated above, draft revised procedure requires a member of the HR Group to be involved in formal Absence Page 9 of 17

10 Review Meetings from stage 2, to help ensure that managers are considering all the issues and circumstances in a particular case before deciding what action to take. Occupational Health Not sure where Occ Health fits in OH don t give managers information that they can actually use Welfare Support David Evans is very good, like the face to face contact No female welfare support officer, could be a potential issue Should conduct return to work interviews, employee likely to be more open than with manager Best practice is clear that the role of Occupational Health in the management of sickness absence is to provide advice and guidance to managers, having assessed the impact of the sickness / injury on the employee s ability to undertake their full work duties. We believe that we have clarified this role within the draft revised policy & procedures. Occupational Health also have a role to support the employee throughout their period of absence, understanding their health and wellbeing needs, and this role is often undertaken by David Evans, the Service s Welfare Adviser. We value the role that David can play in the sickness absence management process, and intend that it should continue under the revised policy and procedures. Debra Fensome is the Service s new Occupational Health Adviser, and as David s line manager she is able to undertake the Welfare Adviser role should any employee prefer to discuss any issues with a female rather than a male Welfare Adviser. The revised management referral process is intended to enable Occupational Health to better provide managers with guidance and information that can be used to better inform their decision making. It is not in line with best practice, nor would it be practical for Occupational Health to conduct return to work discussions. However, Occupational Health and the Welfare Adviser are always available for employees to speak to Page 10 of 17

11 should they be uncomfortable talking to their immediate manager about a particular issue. Contact Important to keep contact, but should be timed appropriately, not on the first day Agreement should be made between both parties on regularity of contact Re-introduce home visits, should be compulsory when people have been off for a certain period of time We agree that it is important to maintain regular contact with employees who are off sick, and the draft revised policy states that the frequency and type of contact should be appropriate to the nature and duration of the sickness absence. The draft revised policy requires employees to book sick direct to their line manager (or another designated manager as appropriate) therefore contact should naturally take place on the first day of absence. As part of this conversation, the manager should agree with the employee when and how they intend to keep in touch, and this should be reviewed if the absence period continues. The draft revised policy also makes it clear that at all times during a period of sickness absence, and that it is the employee s responsibility to be available for contact. For those employees who are absent for longer periods of time, maintaining contact should normally include home visits. However, we believe it is important to retain the flexibility to recognise that there are some limited situations where home visits won t be the most appropriate way of maintaining contact. This is why the draft revised policy states that home visits will normally be appropriate for those on long term sickness absence unless there are exceptional cases why this would not be appropriate. Page 11 of 17

12 There should be one point of contact such as RMU, HR, OH Manager should not make contact, may make the situation worse, particularly in stress situations David Evans should be the point of contact or make the call if it s a sensitive situation Having a single point of contact for all cases of sickness absence across the Service is not something we have written in to the draft revised policy. It would not be practical for either RMU, HR, Occupational Health or David Evans to be a single point of contact, and this is also contradictory to what we are trying to achieve by returning responsibility for managing sickness absence issues direct to managers. Consequences It should be respected if the person does not want to talk to the line manager when off sick Sickline doesn t work, we should contact our manager direct. If employees are ill they would perhaps rather talk to a person than a machine. Sickline is faceless, less personal Currently having to make multiple calls to ensure message is received (sickline/line man manager and colleague) Would prefer a one stop shop approach. All should phone into one port, Occ Health, then contact line manager to discuss expectations Sickline is not checked over the weekend. Easy to play the system, review periods are short enough for people to not take time off for 3 months Need to implement formal warnings to show there will be a However, we have recognised within the draft revised policy that may be exceptional circumstances when it may be more appropriate for another manager to maintain contact with the employee (e.g. where the employee cites the manager as being the reason for their sickness absence). In such cases the Service will determine who is the most appropriate manager to maintain contact with the employee. Virtually all the feedback we received during the first phase of the consultation process told us that the current central sickline doesn t work, and we agree. Therefore within the draft revised policy it is stated that employees must book sick direct to their line manager (or another designated manager as appropriate). This means that employees will not have to make multiple calls to book sick, as we know many currently do, and managers will know of a team member s absence as soon as possible, and can therefore begin to arrange cover as necessary etc. We agree that the current system does not offer any real consequence for those who maintain an unacceptably high level of absence. Page 12 of 17

13 consequence Therefore in the draft revised policy we have recommended that an individual should only be placed on review if they are also given a formal warning, and that review periods should generally last for 12 months. This is in line with best practice. Should be more managerial discretion in applying the consequences Cannot apply a general rule, should be based on the individual case It is important to balance the ability for managerial judgement and discretion with the need to treat all employees across the Service fairly and consistently. If managers believe no formal action is appropriate when an individual has breached a trigger, they can state their reasons in writing, but this must be authorised by the next level of management. Likewise, once in a formal Absence Review Meeting, managers must adjourn to consider all the facts before deciding whether to issue a formal warning and place the individual on a review period. The toolkit will provide guidance for managers on when it would be appropriate not to proceed with a formal warning, and for stages 2 and 3 of the formal process, a member of the Human Resources Group would also be present. In this way, we believe that we have developed a system whereby managers can exercise more discretion than under the current system, but still ensure that all employees are treated fairly and consistently. Drop to half pay, shouldn t happen if been here for a long time and only been ill recently, perhaps a panel should make the decision The sickness pay entitlements are set by the relevant NJCs, and there are clear timescales after which people s pay will drop to half (or nil), depending on length of service of which national terms are relevant. Page 13 of 17

14 The national terms do allow individual FRSs the discretion not to reduce sickness pay in exceptional circumstances, and the Service considers this on a case by case basis, if the individual can clearly demonstrate that they believe exceptional circumstances apply in their case. Long term sick Important to be supportive of those who are on LTS We agree it is important to be supportive of those who are absence through long-term sickness, and the draft revised policy states that cases of long-term sickness absence will be managed to support a return to work wherever possible. However, as with all sickness absence issues, it is important to balance the needs of the individual with those of the Service, and we believe the draft revised procedures for managing cases of long-term sickness absence do allow this. More guidance needed on management referrals for LTS We agree that the management referral process has not been clear in the past and we believe the draft revised policy clarifies matters more guidance will also be available in the toolkit. Modified duties OH and line manager need to jointly decide on what MD is relevant OH tells employee what MD they should do before discussing practicalities with line manager Recommendations for MD are given by those who don t understand what they do Managers will always be able to seek advice from a member of the Human Resources team when drafting a management referral. We understand that in the past there may have been some concerns about the approach taken to modified duties. The draft revised policy makes it clear that Occupational Health are responsible for providing recommendations on what modified duties and / or adjustments may be necessary to enable someone to return to work, and that it is then a management decision as to if those Page 14 of 17

15 recommendations can be reasonably accommodated, given the operational circumstances. The revised management referral process will allow managers to provide all relevant information to Occupational Health on the nature of the individual s job role, allowing this to be properly considered when making recommendations on modified duties and other adjustments. Should be used to make people feel wanted and to get them back to work MD seem to be the jobs that nobody else wants to do Ensure employee actually has the skill/capability to carry out the MD MD can sometimes have negative impact, watching colleagues go out on shout when you are not able. MD puts rest of the team under additional pressure, this is not currently considered. We understand from feedback received from across the Service at all levels that modified duties has not perhaps been utilised as constructively as is possible in the past. The draft revised policy clearly states that the purpose of modified duties and / or a phased return to work is to support the employee to return to their full job duties as soon as is reasonably possible. One key factor in relation to modified duties is that they must be meaningful for both the employee and for the Service, and of course the employee must have the skillset to be able to carry out what is being asked of them. All of these points must be considered by the manager when determining if recommendations made by Occupational Health can be reasonably accommodated. This is something that should be considered by managers when determining if recommendations from Occupational Health can be reasonably accommodated, and further guidance will be written in to the toolkit. Page 15 of 17

16 There should be no disconnect between sickness and modified duties, people should not be able to sit on MD for year, we need to get better with our 6 week ruling Review of modified duties every 6 weeks may not be appropriate, e.g. if further operations are pending, can sometimes cause employees additional stress We agree that there should be no disconnect between sickness and modified duties; the draft revised policy clearly states that the purpose of modified duties is to support an employee to return to the full duties of their job role as soon as is reasonably possible. It is important (for both the individual and for the Service) that people do not sit on modified duties for an unnecessarily prolonged period. However, we do know that each case has its own individual circumstances, and can require very different reasons and timescales for periods of modified duty. Therefore the draft revised policy states that periods of modified duty will last for c. 4-6 weeks, but that timescales may vary depending on the nature of the sickness absence and the employee s role within the Service. The draft also states that progress should be reviewed regularly. Communication / implementation of the new policy Use the open forum approach to roll out the new policy. It must be mandatory for managers to learn about the new policy. Visit stations to explain key highlights. Do a follow up HR Roadshow. Use Sharp End News to communicate. We agree that managers must be clear about their role and responsibilities under the revised procedures, which is why there will be a training programme that all managers will be required to attend. The open forum approach used in the first stage of the consultation process was voluntary for employees and managers to attend, and with the roll-out of the revised policy we want to ensure that everyone receives the key messages. It is not practical for the HR team to be able to visit every single station to explain the key highlights, and even if it were, this still would not guarantee that we would be able to see everybody. Therefore, we plan to send a letter to all employees advising of the key changes and telling everyone when the new policy will become effective. We plan to attach this to payslips, as we think this is the Page 16 of 17

17 best way to guarantee we reach everybody! We will also be supporting this with messages in Sharp End News and in Team Brief. Training needs to be face to face, not just reading a booklet. Focus on softer skills Role play Provide case studies to make it real Training on how to deal with difficult situations Training must be consistent We agree training needs to be face to face and. as stated above, we need to use the training programme to start giving managers some of the soft skills needed to effectively manage sickness absence. The training will be delivered by IMP (the same organisation who delivered the appraisal training earlier in the year), which will help to ensure a consistent approach across all the course dates running. The course content will include case studies (anonymised and/or fictional) and training on how to deal with difficult situations. The toolkit will also support managers with the practicalities of managing sickness absence issues. Page 17 of 17

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