Council’s staff sickness levels source of stress amongst councillors

ABSENTEEISM at Scottish Borders Council is higher than the national average and stress, anxiety and depression is the reason given in 22 per cent of cases of staff taking time off.

But when the council’s Scrutiny committee looked at how staff absences are managed and put forward a series of recommendations about how the council should deal with the issue these were rejected by the council’s executive and a row has broken out between the two council committees which is likely to come to a head at today’s meeting of the full council.

Staff sickness absence has gone down from an average of 13.25 days a year in 2008/9 to 11.56 a year in 2011 but that figure still places Scottish Borders Council at 27th spot out of the 32 local authorities in Scotland when it comes to employee absenteeism.

Staff sickness amongst teaching staff has gone up from 5.65 days per year to 7.03 days and when councillors questioned whether the rise could be attributed to changes in recent years that have seen the number of teachers reduced, shared headship and recent changes to supply teahcers, Councillor Alex Nicol admitted that “there had been many recent changes within education and lifelong learning which had been unsettling for everyone”.

There’s been a good uptake of an offer of counselling sessions for staff, leading on to a question about whether problems with alcohol were a feature of absenteeism.

The scrutiny report explains: “There was a question raised in relation to random testing for staff in certain frontline occupations and it was acknowledged that while the council could consider this, caution was advised in that it was a sensitive issue, there were employment law issues, and it could cause resentment if it was felt that a particular group of staff were being targeted.”

Councillors on the scrutiny committee, headed by Mid Berwickshire councillor Donald Moffat, made seven recommendations that involved: speeding up the steps being taken to cut down on staff absences; a review of the council resolution process between staff and line managers; early intervention when there is a breakdown in working relations; ensuring all staff and line managers are aware of the policies and procedures and the expectations placed on them; a review of the current policy that means staff would be in breach of their contract if they speak to councillors about employment; and that the director of education should investigate the rise in teacher absences.

When scrutiny’s recommendations went to the council’s executive the only one they agreed to take action on was that the rise in teacher absences be investigated and the findings reported back to the education exeucutive rather than scrutiny.

Scrutiny would normally have the option to ‘call-in’ the executive’s decision but because there isn’t time for that before the May elections it was decided that a final decision should be made by the council today on how to move forward and reduce staff sickness absences.