Audit plan to examine council sick absence rates is welcome

Share this article

High sickness rates are a problem in much of the public sector, across much of the United Kingdom, and indeed in other countries too.

It has been this way for a long time.

But that does not mean we should just give up and assume it is a problem that will always be with us.

Sickness rates vary from sector to sector, and from place to place. That means there is always something to be learned from the public sector organisations and departments that have lower rates of sick absence.

In local government in Northern Ireland, details of sick leave rates in the year 2017-18 have now been revealed.

An average of 15 days were lost per employee, according to the local government auditor.

That is a troubling high figure of three working weeks per person. Increases are being attributed to a rise in long-term absence due to conditions like depression and stress.

The auditor Pamela McCreedy says “staff welfare must be protected”. Of course it must be, but such an observation cannot become a reason to accept the unacceptable. Thus it is welcome that Ms McCreedy also says that “effective delivery of front-line services to the public” must also be protected.

We must never lose sight of this key point: that large levels of sickness absence impact on the state’s ability to deliver key services. We all know the huge pressures on such services.

Within the councils there is a significant range in absenteeism rates. Antrim and Newtownabbey deserve congratulations for recording the lowest number of lost days.

There are the equivalent of 10,000 full time staff employed in local councils.

Ms McCreedy says she plans to work with the Northern Ireland Audit Office to commence a study into sickness absences this year. This will be an important piece of research.

We need to find out what the councils with the lowest rates of sickness absence are doing right, and to try to see that it is emulated across local government.