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“Hugely frustrating” sickness rates among local authority staff

12 Dec 2023 3 minute read

Richard Youle Local Democracy Reporter

Rising sickness rates among staff at one Welsh Council are “hugely frustrating” according to its assistant chief executive – with stress and fatigue being chief reasons for absence.

Staff took an average of 11.55 days off sick in 2022-23 – more than any of the preceding seven years, and nearly two days more than the council’s target of 9.63 days. Stress, and mental health and fatigue were the two most common causes for absence, although they could sometimes be caused by factors outside of work.

‘We have got to improve’

Councillors on the corporate performance and resources scrutiny committee heard that demand for occupational health support arranged in-house has soared, partly because NHS waiting lists were so long.

Paul Thomas, the council’s assistant chief executive, talked about various measures in place to support staff and bring sickness absence levels down.

“It’s hugely frustrating to see an increase in sickness absence given the efforts we’re all making,” he said. “We have got to improve, bluntly.”

He also said it looked like people’s immunity to viruses may have reduced post-Covid.

However, the council, which directly employees around 8,150 staff, is in the midpoint when it comes to Wales’s 22 local authorities. Staff at Ceredigion Council took the fewest days off sick while those at Blaenau Gwent took the most, according to the most recent figures.

Ann Clarke, Carmarthenshire Council’s human resources manager, said staff working in areas of highest demand, like social care, had the highest levels of stress and mental health absences.

She said hybrid working was not “the panacea” that some people suggested, although it helped those who didn’t have to deliver frontline services.

On the plus side there were fewer absences among primary school staff, who took an average of nine days off sick in 2022-23, compared to the previous year.

Complex picture

Asked by committee chairman, Cllr Giles Morgan, why that was, Ms Clarke said primary schools were becoming better at managing absences. She said when a teacher was off sick the council paid the school a sum of money to bring in an agency teacher, but if the school didn’t follow the correct absence management procedures the money was withheld. The meeting also heard that sickness absence management was emphasised to incoming head teachers and deputy heads during induction.

Heidi Font, the council’s well-being manager, said the authority had eight mental health practitioners, three health and well-bring coordinators, and that 58 council managers had attended absence management sessions of late. She said mental health was a medical condition, with symptoms such as depression or panic attacks, while stress – often driven by high workloads – wasn’t.

A report before the committee said sickness absence among the private sector was markedly lower on average than in the public sector, and that this also applied to smaller organisations compared to bigger ones.

Council leader Darren Price said sickness absence was “quite a complex picture”.

He pointed out that lowest-paid workers at the council received the Real Living Wage, but conceded that “we are expecting people to do more with less”. Cllr Price said it was important to let staff know they were valued, and that this was something he had been doing.

The Plaid Cymru leader said sickness absence involved some factors outside the authority’s control. He added: “After 10 years of austerity people are feeling the pinch.”


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