Former DWP perm sec Sir Leigh Lewis on how to reduce sickness absence in the civil service

Reducing sickness absence is a vital task for leaders, and it must start with some difficult conversations if real progress is to be made 

By Sir Leigh Lewis

20 Jan 2017

“Ye can call it influenza if ye like,” said Mrs Machin. “There was no influenza in my young days. We called a cold a cold.”
(Arnold Bennett – The Card – 1911)


Like Mrs Machin, a hundred plus years ago, we have gone on developing new names for illness. “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”, “Repetitive Strain Injury”, “Episodic Acute Stress” all contribute, along still with influenza, bad backs, colds and, increasingly, stress, to the causes of absence that employers encounter amongst their workforce, and which cumulatively add up to the total level of sickness absence they face.

But are we right to focus so much attention on reducing something – sickness absence – which has been with us as long as work itself? As Ronald Reagan once allegedly said: “They say that hard work never hurt anyone, but I figure why take the chance.” 

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My own experience – not just from my time at DWP where driving down the then very high level of sickness absence was a constant preoccupation – but also from the organisations with which I am now involved in both the private and not-for-profit sectors – is that it is right. 

That is for two main reasons. First, of course, because of the direct cost and reduction in output which sickness absence brings with it. In the DWP – with, in my time, over 100,000 staff – a reduction of one day in the average annual level of sickness absence per employee was the equivalent of roughly 400 more staff being at work on any given day. 

But secondly, and in my view even more importantly, because there is no doubt that levels of sickness absence in an organisation are a proxy for the health and effectiveness of the organisation as a whole. At its crudest, organisations with high levels of sickness absence tend also to have worse management, poorer performance, lower morale and, in the private sector, worse profitability. 

So what, faced with unacceptably high levels of sickness absence, should employers do? First, in my view, ask themselves whether they are in fact contributing to that level of sickness absence by creating, or at least tolerating, levels of pressure and stress which are substantially higher than they need be. That will never be an easy or comfortable conversation. Organisations face many unavoidable pressures; heightened public expectations, ever greater financial pressures, inescapable staff reductions – none of them can be made to go away. 

But how often do employers add unnecessarily to such pressures through constant reorganisations, unrealistic targets, ever-changing management fads and simple ignorance of the pressures which their staff are facing? Talk to the next nurse, social worker or shop floor worker you meet if you doubt the truth of that. The chief executive who is not prepared to ask if some of that at least applies in their own organisation is certainly at risk of failing to see the reality they face. 

The second essential, however, is to regard sickness absence not as an act of God but as something which can, and must, be managed. While there is no one magic bullet there are some essential pre-requisites:

• Having a sickness management strategy in place. If you have no idea what you’re trying to achieve don’t be remotely surprised if you fail to achieve it

• Being clear that you have systems for recording sickness absence accurately and managers who are clear about their responsibility for operating them. Nothing undermines a sickness management strategy more fatally than not knowing the true scale of the problem

• Setting triggers for when an individual’s level of sickness absence is going to lead to action being taken and then operating those triggers consistently. If they are observed as much in the breach as the reality they will rapidly lose all credibility

• Making clear that neither repeated short term absences nor long-term continuing absence can continue beyond a certain point. This is not about disbelieving medical evidence nor about abandoning care and compassion. It is about being clear that, beyond a certain point, repeated or long-term sickness absence is simply incompatible with delivering the organisation’s objectives

• Last, but by no means least, recognising that the great majority of your staff do want to see the consistent application of your sickness absence procedures. They are as fed up as you with the colleagues who are repeatedly off sick without any apparent consequence – which simply adds to the pressures on all those employees who do come to work day in and day out.  

My own experience is that doing all of the above will not guarantee that your overall level of sickness absence will reduce. But not doing it will almost certainly guarantee that it won’t. Encouragingly, sickness absence levels in the civil service have been falling consistently over the past five years. That suggests that while none of the above is remotely easy, it is entirely possible. 

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