Tuesday, March 06, 2007

NHS Sick Leave Strikes Again

As we know, sick leave in the NHS is higher than just about anywhere else. At two and a half weeks pa (12 days, or 4.5%), it's twice the private sector average.

Now of course, you could argue that's hardly surprising: you'd be sick too if you had to spend all day with sick people. But that doesn't account for why sick leave is reportedly much less for doctors than say junior nurses (the Doc reckons he's only taken about two days off in the entire 400 years he's been practising).

No, everybody knows the real reason is that NHS management hasn't gripped it. Confronting a contentious issue like staff lead swinging is simply not the kind of thing safety first management likes to do. And in a culture where it's endemic, unions are big, and no-win-no-fee-lawyers are hovering by the door, we can't be surprised they steer well clear.

But today, we have a case that really does take the gold-plated biscuit.

An Italian heart surgeon called Vincenzo Argano has just spent 14 months working full-time for a hospital in Palermo while on sabbatical and sick leave from an NHS hospital in Swansea. And we still carried on paying him:

"The trust acknowledged that one of its clinicians had been on sick leave for more than six months. Any member of staff who had been employed for more than five years, as Mr Argano has, is entitled to six months full pay on sick leave, followed by a further six months on half-pay. A consultant of Mr Argano's seniority would earn over £80,000 a year within the NHS."

Both sides are keeping schtumm about the precise financial details, but it's clearly tens of thousands. And the blame rests squarely with pants management. The Healthcare Inspectorate has just reported on a veritable shambles at the Swansea heart unit:

"The unit was established in 1997 with two surgeons and too great a workload, partly due to pressures to bring down waiting lists. There were problems from the outset.

In November 2003 "15 members of staff from different disciplines approached the medical director with allegations of bullying and harassment by two of the surgeons in the unit", says the report. "Individual statements were taken but counter accusations and allegations against the original complainants were also made."

The problems have caused delays and sometimes cancellation of operations, says the report. It is extremely critical of management, saying they have failed to respond to problems in a "fair, robust, transparent" way."

A familiar tale of NHS management failure, with nettles ungrasped, patients let down, staff "concerned for their own sanity" (in Mr Argano's words), and taxpayers stumping up thousands to people who are not even pretending to do the job (cf the £243,000 we lost at Eastbourne).

Few managers enjoy taking open and decisive action against underperforming staff. It can make them very unpopular and leave them waking sweatily at 3am. But in successful private sector companies there is no alternative. It's a key part of the manager's job, driven by that overarching imperative to make money. And carrying deadweight staff is something no business can afford.

In the public sector there is no such imperative. The quiet life option is drift, combined with the vague hope that something will turn up.

And we pay.

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