Hertfordshire County Council's success highlights some valuable lessons

Absenteeism is a well-publicised problem in the public sector.

So what is the secret behind Hertfordshire County Council's successful absence management strategy, which has resulted in efficiency savings of at least £250,000 per annum?

Alan Warner is committed to the wellbeing of his colleagues and has clear views on what it takes to ensure they stay at work. He has overseen the development of the council's absence management programme, and attributes its success to early intervention and a series of coordinated initiatives which place employee welfare at the heart of the programme. "There is no magic wand when it comes to managing absence," he comments. "One of Hertfordshire's five strategic personnel objectives is to be an employer of choice. A vital aspect of this is managing the health and wellbeing of our staff. We have found that by actively doing this, absence can be managed positively, rather than through the threat of financial penalties."

Hertfordshire was already a high-performing council, with an average sickness absence figure of 8.3 days, against a national average of 10.3 days for local government. Where departmental absence rates were higher, HCC turned to Marsh for specialist advice and support to improve attendance levels and reduce reported stress. As Barbara Dahill explains, "Sickness absence has become a major concern in the public sector, costing hundreds of millions a year, and significantly compromising the delivery of essential services. Often the very act of measuring sickness absence rates can reduce them, since it signals the fact that the issue is taken seriously. In the case of Hertfordshire they were already ahead of the game in many areas, but further analysis of the absence 'hot spots' enabled us to identify interventions that would reduce the rate further."

One of the key reasons for Hertfordshire's success relates to the way in which it has made managing absence the responsibility of all line managers and re-engineered the way data on absence is captured and reported. Absence is now monitored on three levels - corporately, where it is benchmarked against other organisations, departmentally, and at an individual level.

For the this to work effectively, line managers receive specific absence management training, which helps give them the skills and confidence to spot workplace stress and undertake return to work interviews.

HR works with the payroll team to ensure information is captured accurately, and. as Warner explains, that is not where the spirit of collaboration ends. "HR operates as a partner to the business, working alongside occupational health, health and safety and operational managers. A cross-departmental group meets bi-monthly to further develop our absence policy and ensure it is embedded in the business. We also have a quarterly managers' newsletter dedicated to health and attendance topics."

The programme

Hertfordshire's absence management programme concentrates on four key strands:

- Positive attendance culture: The starting point for Hertfordshire's absence programme was to revisit its sickness absence policy and relaunch it as a health and attendance policy. Warner explains the subtle difference: "We ask managers to focus on positive attendance - eg targets for the percentage of employees with no absence are set, rather than the percentage of days lost through absence." In addition to the training provided to line managers and the improved recording and reporting of absence rates, Hertfordshire has re-engineered its occupational health provision and is piloting an innovative approach to managing long-term illness. This provides participants with individual case management, work-based risk assessments and a fast track to private medical treatment. The council has also developed a toolkit for employees to understand the assistance available to support them through key life stages, rather than simply what to do in a crisis.

- Healthy lifestyles: Hertfordshire's aim in this strand of the programme was to re-educate employees to be aware of the healthy aspects of living.

Research shows that this approach often delivers improved attendance, productivity and employee commitment. Hertfordshire staff restaurants now offer healthy eating options, clearly label food and have held seminars for employees on healthy eating principles. All the council's chief officers enrolled in the 'Health for Life' programme, along with 700 other staff.

Other services offered to employees include on-site consultations, such as blood pressure checks and health screenings. Discounted private medical insurance and healthcare cash plans are available, along with low cost gym membership.

- Stress management: Recognising that the most common reason for long-term sickness absence is stress, and in direct response to the Health & Safety Executive's (HSE) management standards on the issue, Hertfordshire set about piloting a stress management programme for a unit of 16,000 employees. Barbara Dahill comments, "According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 60% of public sector organisations reported an increase in stress cases among staff last year. Stress comes with a price tag. Employers face rising insurance premiums, the increased threat of prosecution for work-related stress, and reduced productivity and performance. We are recommending to clients that they use the introduction of the standards to build on existing risk management efforts in managing stress, as Hertfordshire has done."

Having assessed stress levels in the workplace, Hertfordshire now has detailed action plans under way, which are already bearing fruit. In a year it has reduced the number of staff reporting they feel under pressure by 10%, and the HSE have indicated that they are on course to become a centre of best practice in this area.

- Work-life balance The final strand of Hertfordshire's programme concerns its work-life balance strategy. All employees are encouraged to work sensible hours and take regular 'stress busting' breaks. Every employee has access to flexible working, including part-time, flexi-time, compressed time and term time hours. In a recent internal survey undertaken by the council, 70% of its employees said that managers were sensitive to work-life balance issues.

The results

The range of initiatives undertaken by Hertfordshire stacks up impressively, and the results speak for themselves.

- Employee absence is down from 8.3 to 7.9 days per annum, well below the average. Hertfordshire is now saving an additional £250,000 per annum.
- 77.5% of absences are for three days or less, a figure that is dropping as return-to-work interviews are rolled out.
- Staff turnover is down to 13.3% overall and down from 31.1% to 23.1% in front-line staff.
- There is an estimated 20% improvement in productivity.
- Over 260 staff are using discounted gym membership and 250 staff are making use of discounted private medical insurance and healthcare.
- One in four employees undertaking health screening initiatives were referred to their GP for further support.
- Hertfordshire County Council is on the shortlist for the award for best Absence Management Strategy at the 2005 Pay Awards and has recently won the SOCPO (Society of Chief Personnel Officers) Wellbeing Award.

Reflecting on the key learning points from the programme so far, Alan Warner concludes, "Employee wellbeing is a critical factor in business success and gaining competitive advantage."

- Alan Warner is director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council, e-mail: alan.warner@hertscc.gov.uk Barbara Dahill is senior vice president at Marsh, e-mail: barbara.dahill@marsh.com