Some workers take average of three weeks off through illness each year.

NORTH Devon Council is to look at new ways to drive down ‘stubbornly high’ sickness levels.

New figures show that staff in some departments take an average of three weeks off through illness a year – nearly three times more than private sector workers.

Yesterday (Monday), a panel of officers and councillors agreed to set up a working party to combat poor attendance levels that cost the authority an estimated £500,000 a year.

A report by John Edwards, the council’s head of human resources, revealed that works and recycling, and property and technical staff take an average of 16 sick days a year, compared with a cross-council average of 10.2 sick days.

At Torridge District Council absence over the same period was 6.4 days.

The average amount of days taken in the public sector was 7.9 days, compared with 5.8 days for private sector workers.

Mr Edwards said: “The overall figure for North Devon remains stubbornly above that of Torridge despite the fact that both staff representatives and managers have worked hard to address concerns.

“It is pertinent to ask whether we are happy to continue to manage this issue as we have done in the recent past or whether we should now think about doing something different.”

Mr Edwards suggested the council’s staff consultation panel look at a number of options, including adopting an alternative way of measuring sickness, reviewing sick pay provisions and providing flu jabs for those that want them.

“Flu jabs seem to work; at Torridge they have been used and have had a positive impact,” he said.

But the council says staff sickness was being addressed and had dropped marginally during the last four years, particularly in works and recycling, where the average for the service was 19.09 days sick leave in 2010/11.

It said the problem was caused by long-term absences rather than short term absences (10 days or less).

In the 12 months up to March 2013, the average short-term sick leave was 3.6 days for each worker.

The council said that of the 446 people it employs, 170 had taken no sickness leave during the last 12 months.

Councillor Malcolm Wilkinson said: “There are people who are genuinely sick and they need our support rather than castigation.”

But Cllr John Matthews argued: “But the bad boys need sorting out from the rest of the cart that has to carry them.”

Council leader, Brian Greenslade, said: “It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions when comparing sickness absence levels at different organisations, as some of our staff have unfortunately had long-term sickness and, as a good employer, we have been supportive of them.

“However, since 2009, we have been working to address sickness absence. We will now continue to work towards driving this average further down, whilst continuing to be supportive to our staff.”