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Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office, reported today that sick leave in the National Probation Service is running at an average of 12.3 days a year for each member of staff, directly costing £31.6 million. The difference between what is being achieved and the Service’s target of nine days amounts to 66,420 working days lost, equivalent to some £11 million or around 300 full time employees. The cost of overtime payments to cover for absent colleagues could add a further £2 million a year.

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Insufficient management information hinders the Service’s ability to diagnose the reasons for high levels of sickness absence and take appropriate management action. The Service has limited information on the causes or average lengths of sickness absence or breakdowns by age or gender.

As well as good information, managing sickness absence well needs a clear policy and firm management. In April 2003, the National Probation Directorate circulated a model national policy, including guidance for managers, to the 42 regional Probation Areas. But managers can use discretion on action to be taken and procedures are not applied consistently.

One third of days lost were due to stress, costing £9.8 million. The National Probation Directorate has developed a stress management arrangement, praised by the Health and Safety Executive, and Areas are implementing it locally. But progress could be faster: only one fifth of staff have had stress awareness training.

Dissatisfaction, workload and a poor work/life balance can impact on sickness absence levels. Organisationally, the Service has changed much in recent years: changes in community sentences and the introduction of performance targets have created new demands for staff. But sickness absence itself increases burdens on other colleagues and fuels a vicious circle by creating more stress.

Long-term sickness absence in particular has a substantial impact on the overall absence rate. Tackling long-term sick leave needs a systematic approach and close working with occupational health to get staff back to work or, if necessary, to terminate employment. Areas are not routinely reviewing such cases in line with good practices such as regular case review and are slow to bring cases to a conclusion.

"Managing sickness absence more effectively will lead to better value for money in the Probation Service. Reducing current sickness absence rates of 12.3 days per person to the Service’s target of 9 days would save £11 million, equivalent to 66,420 working days or some 300 full time employees. Tackling the problem will require investment in better information, robust and proactive management, and consistent application locally of policies that have been agreed nationally, particularly to tackle stress and improve work/life balance. "

Sir John Bourn


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