‘The challenge is to get people with long-term sick leave return to their old jobs’

Carla Peeters is best known in the healthcare sector as Chief Executive Officer ad interim. In August 2015 she changed her course and started her organization COBALA. The agency aims to increase resilience and get long-term sick permanently back on track. “Especially in the healthcare sector, there chronic absenteeism is one of the most intractable problems.”

With your rehabilitation program you draw on your own experience?

‘That’s right. On the one hand I know as a former leader of change in healthcare organizations how to perform under pressure and what goes on in many institutions, the intense pressure that the predominantly female health professionals are under, I understand. Many of them are in addition to their demanding care job also caregiver. And the growing labour shortages, more complex syndromes of clients and understaffing coupled with the emergence of self-managing teams, is for many of them too much pressure. If you do not have enough resilience and are not in balance, you are going about your own borders. On the other hand, I have had personal experience with recovery from illness. So I know what it’s like to be excluded for a period and have to get back again. Now our program is, of course, not only based on my own experiences. We use all kinds of scientifically based methods. We work among others with a CCKL certified laboratory and an extensive history to study the lifestyle of people. And we are working with a physician with 20 years of specialization in nutrition. I myself am a PhD in immunology and trained in medical laboratory diagnostics supplemented by inter alia training in the field of personalized nutrition. Along with the participant we draw up a customized plan to strengthen resilience and reintegration.

long-term sick leave spiral

How big are the problems with regard to long-term absenteeism in health care?

“Traditionally, absenteeism in health care is high. Only in education the percentage is higher. But lately we see an increase of this problem in almost all industries. Through society we see that women suffer more chronic illness than men. And more women than men work in healthcare. The average age increases, and thus the number of chronically ill patients increases as well. With increasing age, the probability that one of the staff members in a department has a chronic disease gets bigger. Our challenge is to get those people back in the same job. That is difficult. For example, people with severe back pain are generally not re-integrated back after rehabilitation in health care but in the overhead or through outplacement at another company where they do not have to lift.
But the number of office jobs within institutions is limited and outplacement is not always successful. So we do our very best to increase the resilience of people and to ensure that they can return to their former position. And to give them the tools that they can continue to do the same job in the long-term. “So they can continue to do the work where their heart is and the shortage of skilled personnel dissolved in the healthcare sector.”

What is needed for that?

“That’s different for each person. We see a lot of co-morbidity with combinations of different symptoms. We look very much at a good night sleep, enough exercise and a well-adjusted personal diet. This allows you to already accomplish a lot in increasing the resilience. But we also teach people to recognize what their limits are and how to monitor these limits in the workplace. Especially if you are in a self-managing team this is sometimes difficult. For health professionals who are generally used to care for the other and say no quick “no” this is an additional challenge. That may indeed be at the expense of colleagues and clients. ”

What can Chief Executive Officers in healthcare finally do to reduce absenteeism?

“Prevention is obviously better than to cure, so prevention is important. Therefore, we also offer preventive programs to promote personal resilience and thus organizational resilience. It is very important that the management pays attention to workload and the health of their employees. The human factor in an organization is sometimes overlooked in these times. Fortunately, people working in care are often intrinsically highly motivated, and they want to return preferably in their own work. So we manage to strengthen the resilience of people again with that motivation.


Interview by: Wouter van den Elsen, Zorgvisie Nederland. Published February 10th 2017 in Zorgvisie on website and newsletter

Photo: Rick Ligthelm

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