Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

£16m cost of council absenteeism

Absenteeism is costing councils in Northern Ireland more than £16 million a year

Absenteeism within Northern Ireland councils is costing more than £16 million a year.

The average employee is off for more than 12 days a year on top of holidays, with almost 122,000 working days lost across the region's 26 councils due to sickness, stress, depression and a range of other personal problems.

While the overall cost of absenteeism has risen by almost £1 million to £16.4 million and the total number of days lost is up 700, absence rates are actually slightly down on the previous 12 months.

That is because the councils' bottom line has gone up, with the total wage bill increasing by £19 million to almost £300 million a year (42% of total council spend) as a result of almost 100 more people now working in local government.

According to a Northern Ireland Audit Office report, the average rate of absenteeism for full-time employees is now 12.39 days compared with 12.43 in 2008/09. But Chief Local Government Auditor John Buchanan noted that 42% of staff had no non-holiday days off in the last year, up slightly on the previous 12 months.

Down District Council experienced the largest increase in absenteeism - with its 15-day annual average over the last three years around 50% greater than the 10-day average of 2004 to 2007. With its relatively large workforce, Down now loses around £190,000 a year in productivity. No other council recorded a loss higher than £100,000 between 2004 and this year.

Mr Buchanan said: "Variations in absenteeism rates between councils, and the proportion of this attributable to stress-related absence, appear to have no discernible pattern."

Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance (NIPSA) assistant general secretary Bumper Graham defended council staff. "Each year when this statistical report is issued those who oppose our public services come out and attack public sector workers," he said.

The union official said uncertainty created by proposed rationalisations under the Review of Public Administration (RPA) and general job fears during the recession were factors in the absentee rates. "Local government employers need to engage with the unions to move away from the climate of fear that exists across the 26 councils," he said.

"Members have for over a decade been unsure of their futures under RPA and are now facing massive job losses due to cuts along with attacks on their pay and pensions. NIPSA wants to see a positive approach to mental wellbeing in the workplace. This, however, needs employer engagement with the unions."

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