Staff at Birmingham City Council should be paid an annual cash bonus if they manage to get through a year without once being off sick, a former trade union official has suggested.
Peter Kane, now a Labour councillor, said a “carrot and stick” approach could solve the local authority’s crippling absenteeism problem.
He is urging the city to repeat an experiment conducted 20 years ago, when binmen and road sweepers were rewarded with a bonus if they never called in sick.
The move saw absenteeism levels plummet, but the special payments had to be scrapped after council lawyers said they were unfair.
Coun Kane (Lab Kingstanding) told a scrutiny committee: “The success of that experiment was phenomenal.
“If people were really ill with the flu they phoned up asking for a week’s holiday and absenteeism dropped to one per cent.
“I know people will think it is pie in the sky, but it paid fantastic dividends for this city until the lawyers got involved.”
A new crackdown on absenteeism has enabled the council to reduce sickness levels to about an average of nine days for each of the 25,000 non-schools staff.
The figure is now one of the best for any major public sector organisation, but still far higher than the average in the private sector.
The committee heard claims from the Unite union that the arrival of hot-desking – where staff share desks and computers – may be spreading viral infections.
Unite full time official Steve Foster said: “Germs can live on computers and phones for up to three days. People can easily spread illnesses in these conditions.”
The council’s refurbished offices at Lancaster Circus and new premises on the Aston Science Park are based on staff not having their own designated desk.
City Human Resources director Andy Albon said: “There has been some research done nationally and it’s the law of unintended consequences.
“There are advantages to hot-desking, but it does carry a larger risk.”
The committee heard that unusually high sickness rates in the education department were fuelled by staff catching illnesses from children.
John Smail, assistant director Integrated Youth Support, said: “People who work regularly with children are at greater risk of illness.”
But committee member Steve Bedser said claims that adults working with children were more susceptible to sickness was a “myth”.
Coun Bedser (Lab Kings Norton) added: “If people are exposed to more illness, their immune system becomes more robust.
“We need to be careful that myths don’t creep into managing sickness absences.
“If there is evidence that workers in a particular job are exposed to higher sickness rates, let’s see that evidence.”