Involve unions in absence management

Involving unions improves absence management

Involving trade unions makes a real difference to promoting work attendance, Prospect health and safety officer Sarah Page advised a gathering of government, business and charity representatives in January.

"This is an agenda where we believe our potential is completely under-utilised," she told the breakfast event organised by the Association of British Insurers, to promote cross-sector in response to the recent government-commissioned independent review of sickness absence:

Speakers included Dame Carol Black, author of the review of sickness absence and her co-author David Frost; Dr Steve Boorman, chief medical adviser for Abermed; and the government's chief medical adviser Dr Bill Gunnyeon.

Page said the TUC had long been calling for early access to vocational rehabilitation and better occupational health on the NHS. She cited successes where unions helped reduce sickness absence and promote workplace health, including at BT, Royal Mail, and in drawing up The Well Managed Organisation guidelines for government departments.

Page stressed: "If the government is serious about seeing these practiced consistently, it needs to recognise the organisational and resource needs. Laying off 40 per cent of staff and leaving the rest with huge doubts about their job security isn't helping."

Page urged boards to develop absence strategies with their workforces that included data monitoring and trend analysis. Prospect health and safety reps had reported that while involved in developing or reviewing their organisation's absence policy, very few were involved in data analysis, denying them from understanding the hotspots or buying into subsequent targets.

She also stressed the importance of promoting a healthy environment and tackling underlying causes of absence, such as how work is organised, jobs designed and people managed.

Promoting a culture encouraging attendance could be helped by offering flexible working, de-stigmatising mental illness, and having policies to tackle bullying and harassment. "It's typically unions who make these happen," she said.

Achieving consensus, rather than coercion, was the challenge. Unions could help with keeping in touch with sick workers; facilitating workplace adjustments or adaptations; and encouraging access to occupational health services.

"Reps told us that unless they are contacted by a member – typically in the context of a disciplinary procedure – they had no involvement in supporting or rehabilitating absent colleagues."

Fit For Work Service pilots had reported that around 65 per cent of barriers to attendance were linked to workplace conflict and financial difficulties.

"Unions have negotiators with expertise on handling workplace conflict; support services that can help with finances; and thousands of reps willing and able to signpost staff to sources of support."

  • The Health and Safety Executive's Working Together To Prevent Sickness Absence Becoming Job Loss is available from