In sickness and in health

Comment and Opinion

Brian Booth, RGN.

It isn’t a crime to be ill...

...but it might as well be, looking at the way some employers handle sick leave.

I know of a nurse who is in shell shock after changing employers. In their previous place of work, sickness rates were over ten per cent.

I recall being on a course run by the Industrial Society, and in a conversation with the trainer, was informed that in their view, a rate of four per cent was the acceptable norm for large organisations.  Above that, there was a problem; and once ten per cent was reached, that place was probably failed and beyond redemption.

The nurse in question worked for a PCT. In response to high sickness rates, what did management do? Ask themselves why? Identify problems and solve them?

You’ll have guessed the answer is a ‘no’.

Instead, they changed the policy (and I have to wonder at the spinelessness of the union representatives) with tight ‘triggers’ that, in effect, led to disciplinary action. These were based on episodes, not time, and there was an attitude of zero tolerance, with people being telephoned at home if they were off.

In short order, the problem worsened. Staff were so worried about ‘being off’ that they would come in before they were recovered, and naturally fell ill again. What could have been a single episode often became multiple,  as even leaving after breaking the back of their duties was now classed as sick leave.

And the triggers were pulled.

No exception was made for illness caused by the work environment.

The person I’m talking about took employment elsewhere (the previous employer must be haemorrhaging staff). They fell ill, went back to work, and the manager ordered them to go home and not return until fully fit, saying that they were frankly incredulous that the person had flogged in.

What a culture shock.

I always thought that healthcare professionals were caring and that managers looked after their staff to ensure high standards. But it seems that increasing numbers seem to be abdicating responsibility to ’human resources’ (formerly ‘personnel’ – people; resources are things you draw on until they are used up).

I have always seen occupational health departments as valuable, being independent. But from what I’m hearing, it seems some are becoming more like management muscle.

No doubt the NMC and other regulatory bodies would say this was none of their business, outside their remit. Yet I wonder how many hearings they conduct are due to errors made because the person should not have been at work in the first place?

How many patients are being put at risk by infectious staff?

Still, it’s reassuring to know that there are still places where they are getting it right.