Absenteeism is costing councils more than £16 million a year

Absenteeism within Northern Ireland councils is costing more than £16 million a year. The average employee is off for more than 12 days a year on top of holidays, with almost 122,000 working days lost across the region’s 26 councils due to sickness, stress, depression and a range of other personal problems.

While the overall cost of absenteeism has risen by almost £1 million to £16.4 million and the total number of days lost is up 700, absence rates are actually slightly down on the previous 12 months.

That is because the councils’ bottom line has gone up, with the total wage bill increasing by £19 million to almost £300 million a year (42% of total council spend) as a result of almost 100 more people now working in local government.

According to a Northern Ireland Audit Office report, the average rate of absenteeism for full-time employees is now 12.39 days compared to 12.43 in 2008/09. But Chief Local Government Auditor John Buchanan noted that 42% of staff had no non-holiday days off in the last year, up slightly on the previous 12 months.

The largest cause of absenteeism (22% of days lost) fell into a category encompassing stress, depression, mental health and fatigue.

Absentee rates in individual councils are measured over three-year periods. Staff in Craigavon were off for an average of almost 18 days, with workers in Derry, Carrickfergus and Ballymoney taking more than 16 days on average.

Down District Council experienced the largest increase in absenteeism – with its 15-day annual average over the last three years around 50% greater than the 10-day average of 2004 to 2007. With its relatively large workforce, Down now loses around £190,000 a year in productivity. No other council recorded a loss higher than £100,000 between 2004 and this year.

Mr Buchanan said: “Variations in absenteeism rates between councils, and the proportion of this attributable to stress-related absence, appear to have no discernible pattern.

“One factor which does vary between councils is the management of absenteeism. We recommend that councils with high and rising absenteeism rates should review their own management practices and benchmark these against those councils with low and falling absenteeism rates.”