No easy answers for absence-minded

13th July 2001 at 01:00
More teachers went off sick last year, but they still seem to take less time off than most other public-service professionals. Anat Arkin examines the evidence

The number of teachers taking sick leave rose by 10,000 last year, according to the latest government statistics, but a new survey shows that they still take less time off than other public-sector employees.

The survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that health workers, local and central government employees, as well as some private-sector staff, all have higher levels of sickness absence than teachers and other education-service employees.

These findings tally with those of a study conducted by Cambridge University researchers Tony Bowers and Malcolm McIver last year.

Examining national samples of 10 public-sector groups, Bowers and McIver found that with an average sickness-absence level of 3.2 per cent, teachers have a better attendance record than all but one of these groups. Only people working in "professions allied to medicine", including speech and occupational therapists, appear healthier.

These comparisons are unlikely to impress education ministers. In 1998 the Cabinet Office asked all public-sector organisations to cut sickness absence by 30 per cent by the end of 2003. Since provisional figures from the Department for Education and Skills show that the proportion of teachers in England taking some sick leave last year was 56 per cent, compared to 55 in 1999 (Hot Data, TES, June 8), the education service looks unlikely to hit this target.

Teacher unions see rising absence rates as evidence that their members are under growing strain. But the DFES figures need to be treated cautiously because they include estimates for absence rates in 23 local authorities, including Birmingham and Essex, that did not provide complete data. As Tony Bowers says in a newly-published review of research into teachers' absenteeism and ill-health retirement, inconsistencies in schools' record-keeping practices also help to muddy the picture.

In a survey of 126 schools in England, he and Malcolm McIver found that 30 per cent of them would record as absent a teacher who keeps an appointment with a doctor or dentist. But in 28 per cent, a short-term absence, unaccompanied by a written explanation, would not be recorded as sickness absence.

In any case, Dr Bowers says, measuring teacher absence as a percentage of possible attendance at work - the method used by the government - has little relevance to schools.

For school managers it is the frequency, rather than the amount of absence that matters. The research review gives the example of a 10-teacher school, where a teacher's absence for one term adds up to more than 3 per cent of the total staff working time for that year. This need not be very disruptive since most insurance policies pay out from the sixth day of absence, and schools can usually find a supply teacher for long-term cover.

"On the other hand, a teacher who takes three days off work each term with little or no warning, while contributing less than 0.5 per cent to the school's annual absence total, may present bigger problems for the school's management in covering the absences, with no accompanying insurance pay-out."

While frequent, short-term absence may be difficult to manage, Dr Bowers argues that teachers who take short periods of time off when they feel the need to do so may be better able to cope with the rest of their working lives than those who report unremittingly for work. Thinking about "voluntary" absence as a natural response to stressful conditions does not mean it cannot be reduced. But according to Dr Bowers, it moves the focus away from the individual and on to the interaction between that person and the organisation.

Dr Bowers says that where management policies recognise the complexity surrounding sickness absence they can make a difference. Financial incentive schemes can also reduce absenteeism. These schemes are common in the United States and Australia and are used by some independent schools in the UK, though they can be criticised for encouraging genuinely sick people to stagger in to work.

It is, however, uncertain whether such policies can achieve the 30 per cent cut in absence rates the Government wants. The DFES figures show that absences of 20 days or more account for more than 40 per cent of the time lost, and policies such as return-to-work interviews are obviously not going to prevent staff from taking long-term sick leave for medically-verified conditions. If policies focus on shorter absences, says Dr Bowers, "the overall 30 per cent reduction will have to be achieved from less than 60 per cent of all teacher days lost". This is possible, he adds, referring to an experiment which reduced teacher absenteeism by 66 per cent in three children's homes by changing supervisors' behaviour and setting tighter requirements on people reporting sick. When it comes to the impact of support from colleagues, family and friends, the evidence is mixed. Some studies have found no link between social support and long-term absence. But there is evidence that support from school managers can limit stress-related illness.

As Tony Bowers puts it: "Policies which reflect support, concern and value for individuals' accumulated knowledge may be just as important as those which appear to restrict options and enhance accountability."

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