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The Department for Work and Pensions, the largest employer in central government, like other organisations loses a significant amount of staff time to sickness absence. The Department has introduced good attendance management procedures, but, according to today’s report by the National Audit Office, it could do more to ensure that these procedures are adopted by all of its staff, and that its managers improve the management of staff attendance.

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Levels of sickness absence are influenced by a range of factors including the age, gender and grade of staff, their motivation and attitudes, and the extent of organisational change under way. The Department faces a major challenge in relation to all these factors and has large numbers of staff in categories which, in any organisation, have higher levels of sickness absence. In addition, changes such as the shift towards more call centres – which in the private sector have been shown to have high sickness absence rates – may be making the task of controlling absence rates harder. The Department had an average sickness absence of 12.6 days per person in 2003-04: without any adjustment for age, gender or grade, one of the highest levels in the Civil Service.

Levels of sickness absence on this scale can have an impact on the Department’s performance, and on the well-being of those at work who have to cover for absent colleagues. This is particularly important at a time when the Department is expected to reduce its staff numbers by 30,000 full-time equivalents by 2008. In 2002, the Department agreed new targets: to reduce sickness absence to an average of 10 working days lost per member of staff by 2004 and eight days by 2006. The 2004 target has been missed and that for 2006 is unlikely to be met.

The National Audit Office examined the Department’s policy on attendance management against good practice and found that it measured up well. Key features include a trigger point (eight days of absence) at which management action should be considered, compulsory return-to-work interviews, a taskforce to deal with long-term absence cases and better access to occupational health services. It has also already evaluated progress with the new policy and is acting on its findings, many of which accord with those of the National Audit Office. The Department therefore has strengths on which to build, including a well designed policy, high levels of staff commitment and the experience of many good managers at a local level.

However, today’s report notes that the policy could have been launched more effectively and that many basic procedures in the policy – such as the issuing of warnings – are implemented inconsistently or not at all at local level. For example, the National Audit Office found that the Department had introduced a well-being at work policy aimed at reducing workplace stress; and good support mechanisms such as occupational health services are available, but could be more effectively used. Managers also currently lack access to timely and reliable data on absence. The Department has developed a new staff information system, to be rolled out by the end of 2004, to address this.

The National Audit Office considers that the Department has the potential to achieve substantially better performance by doing more to ensure that these good management policies and practices are adhered to systematically across the Department. The National Audit Office has made recommendations, which the Department accepts and on which it has started to act. The recommendations focus on the following:

  • reinforcing the culture of attendance in the organisation, underlining the Department’s commitment to reducing absence and improving workplace health;
  • better communication of its attendance policies to ensure it gives clear, consistent messages to all staff which take account of our findings;
  • more effective use of management information to identify and tackle attendance problems; and
  • improved support for managers in fulfilling the role expected of them, with better training, monitoring, and clearer roles and responsibilities especially for long-term absence.

"Achieving better staff attendance at the Department for Work and Pensions, the largest government department, would be an important step towards improving central government efficiency. The Department's absence rate is high and has not yet been reduced by the introduction of a new policy. There are no easy solutions, particularly at a time when the Department is undergoing a heavy programme of change, but the Department needs to do more to ensure that the good attendance management procedures it has introduced are adopted by all staff and managers across the organisation."

Head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn


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