Employee absenteeism in the NHS is failing to be adequately addressed by managers, despite the fact that the organisation has the highest level of worker absence of any sector, a report has warned.

Absenteeism also represents the biggest threat to productivity in the NHS.

The study, carried out by researchers from Manchester Business School, revealed that fundamental changes are needed to ensure the NHS does not remain “at the top of the league for high absenteeism”.

The research, published by the Royal Society of Medicine in the journal Health Services Management Research, also revealed that £34m could be saved if 1 per cent fewer staff called in sick a year.

The researchers reviewed previous studies on employee absenteeism and investigated the issue at two trusts.

They discovered that many managers, particularly professional managers, were not addressing the problem, with even those who acknowledged that it was their job to reduce worker absenteeism taking little action.

Nurse managers were the most negative about reducing absence levels.

The authors said: “Absence merits rigorous attention as it affects quality of care, wastes managerial and occupational health time and bleeds resources away from core services. It is a persistent festering sore that is the single biggest cause of lost productivity in the NHS (and all organisations).

“A systematic change programme is needed for a fundamental improvement, otherwise the healthcare sector will continue at the top of the league of absenteeism.”

In response Gill Bellord, director of employment relations and reward at NHS Employers, said: “This is an important issue and NHS organisations in England have reduced already their sickness and absence levels by addressing many of the issues now highlighted in the report by Health Services Management Research.

“We are working with the NHS and health unions to provide advice and guidance to support a fit and healthy workforce that can deliver first class care to patients.”

She added: “Improvements in line manager training and better engagement with staff have both played an important part in reducing NHS staff absence levels and a strong health and well-being approach has demonstrably reduced sickness. 

“It is essential that managers explore the available options to rehabilitate staff into work. This can involve working with the member of staff, occupational health and a GP to produce a work plan that rehabilitates the employee at an agreed pace.”