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Recorded sickness absence by Prison Service staff has increased since 1999, especially absence caused by stress, anxiety or depression, according to a report by the National Audit Office. However, much of the overall increase may be down to under-reporting in earlier years. Today’s report points out that the Service has made considerable progress in improving its procedures for recording sickness absence.

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According to today’s report to Parliament by head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, staff were absent on sick leave for an average of 14.7 days in 2002-03, compared with a target of 9 days. The 668,337 working days lost due to sickness absence represent a year’s work for around 3,000 full time staff and amount to some £80 million in staff costs.

According to Prison Service records, the sickness absence rates have increased since the National Audit Office last reported on this area in 1999. The average rate in 1997-98 was 12.6 days per person, although the earlier NAO report established that there might have been under-recording and, therefore, the figure might have been as high as 15.9 working days. Subsequent improvements in data recording probably account for much of the subsequent increase in the recorded sickness absence rate per person. Other reasons for the increase include a rise in days lost because of depression, stress and anxiety among staff and as a result of accidents and assaults by prisoners. The number of recorded assaults on staff that led to their taking sickness absence increased from 397 in 1999-00 to 693 in 2002-03.

The Prison Service has introduced rigorous new procedures to manage sickness absence which have led to a reduction in the overall rate: latest Prison Service data indicate the average sickness absence rate for 2003-04 was 13.3 days per person. Staff absences for periods of sick leave of 28 days or more remain high, however, and accounted for 478,672 of the 668,337 working days lost in 2002-03 (72 per cent). Further reductions in the overall sickness absence rate depend on close working between prison governors and the occupational health service provider to deal with such cases promptly.

Today’s report highlights the wide variations in 2002-03 in the average sickness absence rate at different establishments. Five prisons achieved an average of eight days or less while, at ten prisons, the average was 20 days or more. The report concludes that the Prison Service could have saved 80,577 working days, equivalent to a staff cost of £9.6 million, if it had been able to reduce sickness absence rates at each establishment to the average for all prisons. Further reductions in sickness absence rates depend on prison governors being proactive in the way they manage their staff and, at some establishments, overcoming a lack of staff motivation and a culture of absenteeism.

The report recommends closer collaboration between prisons to share good practices and the development of a senior management training programme for governors in raising staff morale and encouraging a constructive working environment. The Prison Service should monitor performance of the new attendance score mechanism and encourage governors to work closely with the occupational health service to deal with staff on long term sick leave.

"The Prison Service has made good progress in tightening up its procedures for recording sickness absence and now has a better grip on the performance of establishments. The average sickness rate remains high, however. Any reduction in working days lost would free resources which could be used, for instance, to improve regimes for reducing re-offending rates or to deal with the increased number of prisoners being held in custody.

"Further reductions in the average rate of sickness absence among Prison Service staff depend on governors working more closely with staff to improve morale and to overcome a culture of absenteeism prevalent in some prisons."

Sir John


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