Stress main cause as SBC works to cut absence rates

A LOT of work is going into cutting sickness absence rates among Scottish Borders Council’s workforce, but more needs to be done.

That was one of the main messages from last week’s examination of the sickness rates among Scottish Borders Council (SBC) staff by members of the local authority’s scrutiny panel.

Last week TheSouthern reported that in the past four years, 194,170 working days had been lost because of illness among the council’s 5,500-strong workforce, at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £15million.

Councillors examining official figures learned that the largest category of those on long-term absence was those suffering stress, anxiety and depression – 21.33 per cent.

In the short-term absence categories, gastrointestinal problems caused most days off.

Compared with other local authorities in Scotland, SBC’s sickness absence rate for all staff, excluding teachers, put it 25th out of 32 councils with an average of 12.5 days per employee in 2009-10.

The Scottish local authorities average was 11.4 days and SBC’s target rate was 13.4 days.

For teachers, the Borders had a sickness absence rate 1.8 days below the Scottish average – 5.7 days – giving the Borders the second lowest rate of absence among teachers.

The data on sickness absence had been released after a request from Borders party councillor, Nicholas Watson, and the figures were discussed by Councillor Watson and fellow members of the scrutiny panel last Thursday.

Jill Stacey, head of audit and risk at SBC, with Clair Hepburn, acting human resources manager took councillors through the statistics.

Councillors were particularly keen to investigate working days lost to stress. Ms Hepburn pointed out that the figures did not distinguish whether stress/anxiety/depression had been caused by working conditions or personal circumstances.

“Our well-being team is looking for hotspots and if a particular department has an especially high level of absence due to stress or anxiety, they go in and do some work to support staff affected,” she said.

Ms Stacey added that on-going initiatives were making a positive differences, but that did not mean the council was being complacement about the situation. “In-roads can still be made,” she said.

Future actions planned included identifying stress hotspots; carrying out targeted risk assessments on the top four absence categories; continuing to deliver effective attendance management training and awareness; introducing specialised stress counselling; introducing “mini-MoTs” for staff and continuing to benchmark against other councils and organisations. Councillors agreed to re-examine these in six months.

Another future action, the introduction of on-site physiotherapy services, was also discussed. Scrutiny chairman, Councillor Donald Moffat, wondered how that would be possible given the scattered locations of many work places for council staff.

Ms Hepburn said the reason for the physio service plan was that back problems were an issue, but since a number of physiotherapists did not drive, the plan would involve staff members brought to them.

“We think this could make a significant contribution to getting people back to work.”

Councillor Kenneth Gunn was concerned over the absence levels among teaching staff.

“I wonder why this figure seems so high, and whether the changes brought about by the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, together with the huge amount of work that had to be done on transforming children’s services, might have had something to do with it.”

Ms Hepburn said change was a part of most people’s working lives and SBC was performing well when teachers’ absence rates were compared with other local authorities.

Councillor John Paton-Day felt, as the largest employer in the region, SBC would naturally have what seemed on the surface a higher rate of sickness absence than other, smaller, organisations.

“I also think this building [SBC headquarters in Newtown] has a lot to do with that. I think it definitely has sick building syndrome – it’s an awful place to work and needs more than just one paracetamol to cure it.

“But sickness absence is not just an SBC problem, it is a nationwide problem and I think we have to be careful not to do too much navel-gazing over this.”

Councilor Watson said he was astonished that the target figure for the sickness absence rate of 12.9 days for the bulk of staff. “Surely that target figure should be zero?” he said.

Ms Hepburn said it was hoped the target figure could be reduced.

Councillor Watson’s Borders Party colleague, Sandy Aitchison, felt the council had been historically lacking in ambitions when it came to absence targets.

“I think there are concerns about this and the public perception is that sickness absence rates is something we should be looking at regularly to see if there are any trends developing.”