HSE focus on sick leave of pregnant workers
Nurses react with anger at plans for new maternity-leave model
HEALTH chiefs risk angering their largely female workforce by targeting pregnant women and new mothers in their latest drive to cut sick leave.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) is considering several options to clamp down on pregnancy-related sickness after a study in north Dublin found high levels of absenteeism amongst expectant and new mothers.
The study found that more than half of pregnant staff went on sick leave before their maternity leave started.
A high proportion of the pregnant staff were nurses and support staff, half of whom took four weeks' sick leave, effectively extending their time off.
A smaller proportion of new mothers called in sick when they were due back at work at the end of their maternity leave.
The HSE now wants to deter pregnant women from going off sick by adopting a British system, which allows employers to ask women to start their maternity leave from the date they go sick. Nurses hit back at the study, accusing the HSE of disrespecting its largely female staff.
Liam Doran, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, said the health authorities failed two decades ago in a legal bid to have pregnancy-related sick leave counted as maternity leave.
"The inference this was some kind of manufactured leave is an insult to its female staff," he said. "The HSE should respect its predominantly female workforce."
The health service has been dogged by high absenteeism. Sick leave rates have fallen to just over five per cent this year, which means that 5,000 health service staff call in sick each day.
The nurses' union has been working with the HSE on reducing sick leave, but Mr Doran said he was unaware of any issues regarding pregnancy-related absenteeism.
The study, given to the Oireachtas health committee last week, found in the Dublin North East health region, 53 per cent of pregnant staff took an average of 35 days' sick leave before they went on maternity leave.
That amounted to 8,663 calendar days lost to absenteeism. It said a "significantly high proportion" -- 60 per cent -- of those who took sick leave before their maternity leave started were nurses.
In contrast, almost 13 per cent of new mothers took sick leave when their maternity leave ended. The study said the days lost to sick leave was still significant, with 4,953 days lost in 2009.
The HSE is now considering a health promotion campaign to "retain pregnant employees in the workplace", by introducing more flexibility and work breaks.
The study continued: "In the UK it appears that if an employee is off work with a pregnancy-related absence, the employer can ask the employee to commence her maternity leave at that stage. A similar approach may be appropriate for Ireland," the report said.
The study, entitled pregnancy-related absenteeism, was based on 2009 attendance figures.