Coronavirus has taught us the value of data to the NHS – how can this benefit schools?

Ian Caminsky, CEO of FirstCare, on how streamlined, real-time data is the key to solving complex problems

Never before have we seen so many live, regularly updated graphs in relation to a news story – in print, on social media and news broadcasts worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of live data in supporting governments’ efforts to monitor and control the spread of disease. It’s invaluable; not only can the public understand how the virus spreads, but it allows relevant organisations to prepare their staff and resources for ‘peaks’. Other public sector organisations, in particular schools, can learn from this.

Like many UK businesses and organisations, schools have dealt with unprecedented levels of staff absence within the last month. The nature of coronavirus means that employees do not necessarily have to become unwell to miss work – they may be required to self-isolate or look after a dependant. Indeed, more than 40% of the coronavirus-related absences FirstCare has recorded have been as a result of self-quarantine, and over 17% due to employees taking care of a dependant.

‘These are exceptional times’

Knowledge of such absences in real-time is of significant benefit to schools, enabling strategy teams to ensure cover is arranged and – crucially, in the current circumstances – minimising the risk of infection spreading throughout schools. If institutions can pair this data with nurse-led support for sick staff, this can considerably alleviate the issues related to the absence. Leaders benefit from the reassurance that professional medical triage has been followed, Public Health England guidance adhered to, and foresight of when staff should be able to return to work.

But these are exceptional times. What if the nature of staff absence is less prescribed?

Last month, it was reported that a school in the Highlands was forced to spend £9m on supply teachers to make up for staff absence in the last year – and such headlines are not unusual. Data can help employers identify a pattern and determine whether staff absence is problematic. Tackling this issue makes financial sense and improves staff wellbeing.

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We partnered with a college group that wanted to get a handle on rates of musculoskeletal absence. The data, however, revealed a concerning rise in staff mental health issues. Using that insight, the HR team prioritised employees’ mental wellbeing, finding that external pressures were impacting teachers. They introduced a suite of measures, tailored to be convenient for all staff, and saw a 17% reduction in days lost to mental health absence each year.

‘Data is key to minimising disruption’

Poor mental health has been the main cause of UK workforce absence since 2018, and there is evidence to suggest that workers who feel a duty to support others – such as healthcare and education professionals – can be particularly impacted. A study from UCL released in January, for example, reported that one in 20 teachers have experienced a ‘mental health problem lasting more than a year’. Furthermore, FirstCare’s data shows that 60% of workers will leave their job after two mental health-related absences. Early intervention is crucial to preventing long and costly absences that are detrimental to schools, staff and pupils.

Coronavirus is a temporary pandemic, albeit one with huge repercussions for the education sector. And while it has been devastating for many parents, teachers and students, the rapid course of action taken – driven by data – has potentially averted a much bigger crisis. Data is key in minimising disruption from unplanned events, and applied effectively, can allow education leaders to support staff and schools before problematic absence hits the headlines. The lessons learned from coronavirus will lead to fewer absences, a healthier workforce, and institutions better prepared to adapt to challenging circumstances.


Find out more about FirstCare: www.firstcare.uk

You might also like: Government-backed virtual school opens to students during coronavirus lockdown


 

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