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BMA warns against doctor presenteeism

The BMA Doctors for Doctors unit head has warned against the dangers of ‘presenteeism’ among doctors as figures reveal huge variations in medical sick leave.

sick noteA BMA investigation found that on average 29 per cent of doctors took sick leave over a year.

Out of 127 trusts in England responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, the figures varied from 80 per cent of doctors at BHRUT (Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust) and 1.2 per cent at Medway NHS Foundation Trust.

This equated to 714 doctors out of a total medical workforce of 894 taking sick leave in a year at BHRUT and six out of 489 doctors at Medway.

However, BMA Doctors for Doctors unit head Michael Peters said high rates of sickness absence did not necessarily equate to a workforce under pressure. 

Instead, he said it could mean doctors did not feel compelled to attend work when they were sick.

Infectious doctors

He said: ‘Presenteeism — when people attend work when they are sick — is a pernicious problem within the medical workforce and is actually more of a threat to doctors’ employers than sickness absence.

‘Doctors are notoriously reluctant to take time off when they are sick and this can result in a number of issues including not performing efficiently and communicating their infection to a patient.

‘Both of these issues can have greater repercussions than if the doctor had sought advice from their own doctor and stayed off work.

‘It might be that the trusts with very low sickness absence among their medical workforces are the ones that should be encouraging doctors to look after themselves better.

‘Doctors often regard taking sick leave as exposing weakness, jeopardising ambitious career paths, or letting down colleagues and this is where employers need to work to change the culture.’

Absence targets

BHRUT director of people and organisational development Deborah Tarrant said despite the high headcount numbers, the trust was performing ‘really well’ against its own target for illness rates, calculated using days lost owing to sickness. 

She added: ‘However, there is always more we can do to improve.’

No one at Medway NHS Foundation Trust was available for comment on the figures.

Recent annual figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre puts doctors’ sickness absence rate at 1.2 per cent, lower than all other health professionals.

These figures were based on different calculations to a BMA Freedom of Information Act request — they consider working days lost.

In contrast, ambulance staff had a rate of 6.2 per cent, while nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff had a rate of 4.5 per cent.

 Visit the BMA's doctors' well-being pages

 Read the doctors' sickness absence rates

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