Watchdog’s probe into sicknote council

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SOME Scottish Borders Council staff are having to burn the midnight oil to cover for colleagues who are off sick, it was claimed this week.

And today senior officials will be asked to explain to the watchdog scrutiny panel of backbench councillors the level and nature of absences through illness at the Newtown-based local authority.

The hearing, which has taken two years to organise, comes after a recent Freedom of Information response revealed that a total of 194,170 days were lost to sickness in the last four full financial years at a cost to the council of nearly £15.44million.

Based on a seven-hour working day this equates to 1,395,190 hours at an hourly cost of £11.36.

That breakdown was given to retired Gattonside resident Sandy Brownlee who had written to council leader David Parker to express his concern over sickness absences at SBC.

“This is an enormous level of sickness which those working in the private sector, as I did, will find horrifying,” said Mr Brownlee. “It’s certainly not good news for council tax payers during these harsh financial times and I believe some serious questions have to be answered.”

That is a view shared by scrutiny panel member Councillor Nicholas Watson (Borders Party) who has been seeking an investigation into sickness absences at SBC since 2009.

“These figures merely reinforce the need for a serious investigation which I asked to be included in last year’s scrutiny work programme,” said Mr Watson.

“I am told that because of staff changes and departmental reorganisations, it has not been possible to address this important issue before now and I am sorry it has taken so long.

“Ironically, I believe both those factors are contributing to absences, particularly those which are stress-related.

“But fact is we just do not know at present the details of the nature of the illnesses, nor do we have a departmental breakdown, and as councillors/employers we have a duty to find out and take steps to improve things.

“Based on 5,500 staff, the average days lost based on the recent figures provided is about nine per employee per year which is at least 50 per cent higher than the UK average in the private sector according to 2010 statistics.”

Today’s hearing will allow councillors to quiz head of audit and risk Jill Stacey on the cost and business implications of sickness absences, and Clare Hepburn, acting human resources manager, on reasons for absence, departmental/seasonal variations and current management actions.

“Going off sick is often a sign that something isn’t right at work and something needs sorting out,” said Mr Watson.

“An organisation whose workforce feels valued and trusted will not only operate better; it will also be a happier and more productive place to work.

“My suspicion is that there is a fear of doing the wrong thing at SBC and this leads to an excess of centralised control which can be both stifling and demoralising.

“I have often sent out an email in the middle of the night and had a reply from an officer within minutes, so there are many at SBC who work extremely hard, but it is not fair that they should carry the burden of absent colleagues.”

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