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Asking staff about their health ‘may infringe workers’ human rights’, council admits

Asking staff about their health ‘may infringe workers’ human rights’, council admits

🕔13.Mar 2012

English: City Council, Birmingham

Managers at Birmingham City Council have been told they can’t quiz sick staff too closely because questions in a return to work interview could breach their human rights.

Local authority lawyers stepped in stop employees being asked what they were doing to take responsibility themselves for living a healthy lifestyle and preventing sickness.

Trade unions objected to the line of questioning, which they claimed could be contrary to Article 8 of the Human Rights Act giving an individual the right to privacy.

The council’s Equalities and Human Resources Scrutiny Committee wanted to amend return to work interviews to reflect “the employee’s responsibility for managing their own health and preventing sickness where possible”.

But Tory cabinet member for human resources, Alan Rudge, agreed to tone down the wording to reflect union concerns.

Managers will instead be able to discuss only “the support individuals are able to access or could consider, to help them manage their sickness or wellbeing”.

Efforts by the scrutiny committee to introduce targets in an attempt to reduce absenteeism in individual departments were also ruled out by lawyers who were concerned that the council could leave itself open to court action.

The dispute arose as Birmingham City Council confirmed it spent £35 million on sick pay last year.

In a Freedom of Information Act response, officials admitted that in some council departments staff are taking more than double the national average of days off ill – although absenteeism is down significantly from record levels a decade ago.

Council staff were off sick for an average of almost 17 days a year in the early 2000s. Efforts since 2004 to clamp down on absenteeism have reduced the figure to an average of just over nine days, which is three days higher than the national average according to the CBI.

The problem varies from department to department. Teachers and schools staff take fewer than seven days a year off ill, while those working in adult social services are absent for an average of 16 days. Children’s social services and housing also experience high sickness rates.

More than 60,000 working days a year are lost to stress, anxiety and depression, which are the most common reasons quoted by staff for staying at home.

Coun Rudge (Con Sutton Vesey) told the scrutiny committee it would not be legally possible to enforce a set of absenteeism targets based on job type, and that in any case the idea might backfire because staff would assume they were entitled to a certain number of days off.

He stated in a written response:

This recommendation has been considered but will not be adopted because of the many disadvantages to introducing a differential sickness targets.

• The Council would need to justify why certain employees could be treated differently within the same organisation. This practice would introduce job group inequalities, for example,employees within one directorate could be taken to a final case hearing under the sickness procedure for taking 6 days sick leave a year whilst, employees taking 16 days within another directorate would not be penalised.

• It could lead to claims of sex discrimination if service areas with predominantly one gender has a lower target than another.  It could lead to complacency.

• Employees may feel that they are ‘entitled’ to 16 day’s sick leave a year even though they are not sick.

• No other council in the region operates differential sickness targets that we are aware of.

Because of these issues, this approach is therefore not recommended and will not be progressed.

A suggestion by the scrutiny committee that the council should hire physiotherapists to reduce the amount of absenteeism cause by bad backs was rejected on cost grounds.  Coun Rudge said there was no money available and pointed out that stress rather than physical injury was the main reason for staff sickness.

New computer software enabling senior managers to track staff sickness on a daily basis has allowed the council to reduce absenteeism to the lowest recorded level. Coun Rudge revealed that three directorates – Homes and Neighbourhoods, Adults and Communities and Children, Young People and Families – are undertaking pilot training programmes with managers in an effort to target “sickness hot spots”.

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