Soaring staff sickness levels are set to cost cash-strapped Birmingham City Council £39 million unless urgent action is taken, new figures have revealed.
Managers have now been threatened with disciplinary action if they fail to tackle the issue.
A new sickness absence policy requires managers to keep in regular contact with those off work in a bid to assist the return of ill staff.
But in spite of this the numbers of days being taken off sick are set to drastically rise this year.
Council deputy leader Ian Ward has also threatened the loss of performance related pay against managers who fail to fully implement the local authority’s sickness absence policy.
He said that officers had worked out the average cost for every day of work lost at £110.
Last year 324,249 days were missed due to illness – with the highest rates in adult social care, children’s services and education and housing departments.
Last year each member of staff took an average 10.93 days off due to illness, with ‘stress, anxiety or depression’ given as the reason in a quarter of cases. The highest rates in adult social care, children’s services and education and housing departments.
So far this year that total is on course to rise to more than 11.5 days – and that is before the winter weather sets in. The vast majority of sick days are lost to a handful of the long term ill – those taking more than six months off.
Coun Ward (Shard End) told a scrutiny committee inquiry that the council’s 70 most senior directors are being made directly responsible for managing sickness absence and could lose performance related pay if the official policies are not strictly applied and targets not reached.
In the vast majority of cases there are genuine reasons to be absent, he said, but there are concerns around a number of persistent offenders or departments where a certain level of absence is seen as an entitlement and tolerated – putting pressure on other staff.
He suggested that some managers did not have a grip on the problem, while others were much better.
He warned: “We will be taking disciplinary action against managers who do not personally implement the policy in this area.
“Our performance is just not good enough.”
He said that some managers had complained that their staff, working with vulnerable or frail people or in stressful circumstances, were more prone to absence.
“I told them to look at the NHS where the absence levels are much lower,” he added.
Since July, when a council human resources official was put in charge of tackling the chronic long term sickness rate, which accounts for 70 per cent of the absence, the number of people off work for more than six months, has fallen from 151 to 125.
Those 26 include three dismissals, 14 returning to work, five resigning or retiring and a death in service.
Assistant director of human resources Tarik Chawdry said it is imperative that managers maintain routine contact with those on long term sick as people left out of contact, as they had frequently been in the past, soon adjust to not being at work and are harder to get back.
Progress on long term absence is now being monitored on a weekly basis.
Opposition Tory deputy leader Robert Alden (Erdington) suggested that the council should aim for the private sector average absence rate of 5.8 days per year. “We may not be able to achieve that but could be worth having as a target,” he said.
Coun Ward refused, replying: “You would be the first to criticise when it was not achieved.”
Coun Jess Phillips (Lab, Longbridge) wondered if the council’s generous terms of full pay for six months sick and half pay up to a year, contributed to the high levels.
She said: “Nobody takes six months off with stress where I work because they don’t get paid. And I work in a rape crisis centre which can be particularly stressful.
“I wonder if there is a culture of entitlement in some areas.”
Coun Ward added that they are also looking at a non-financial incentive or reward for staff who do not take sick days.