Byline: Thomas Pascoe
A CULTURE of sickness absence at Cardiff council cost the taxpayer almost pounds 17m of public money last year, an internal report has revealed.
Employees at the local authority took an average of 11.5 days off each as a result of illness - costing the council pounds 15.1m in sick pay.
A further pounds 1.7m was spent hiring agency staff as cover.
The eye-watering scale of the bill for sickness absence comes amid severe cuts imposed on the authority as a result of a drop in its real-terms funding from the Welsh Government. The worst rate of absence was in the council's waste services department, where employees took an average of 21 days off ill last year, treble the national average of 6.5 days.
At one stage, almost one in every seven employees in the department were off sick.
Across the council, more than 100 people were sacked last year as a result of their sickness absence records.
The findings of the report have been condemned as "deplorable" by one councillor, while campaign group the Taxpayers' Alliance said the figures were evidence of a "deeper problem."
Other departments with a particularly high rate of absence included adult services, which includes care for the elderly and disabled, also suffered from high rates of absence.
Workers in the department took an average of 18.5 days off with poor health.
The internal report by the council's own policy review and performance committee cited "cultural factors contributing to high absenteeism" and suggested measures ranging from funding MRI scans at private clinics to providing complimentary therapies in order to address the problem.
Incentives such as prize draws, small gifts, letters of recognition and additional annual leave were also considered in the report.
These were eventually rejected as "attendance is a contractual requirement which should not require incentivisation."
Conservative councillor Craig Williams blasted the statistics as "absolutely deplorable."
"The council has spent six years trying to crack this problem and an enormous amount of money has been wasted," he added.
Citing staff morale as "a huge issue", Coun Williams suggested that the council uses the forthcoming job evaluations it has planned for all staff to address what he described as the "endemic problem" of absenteeism.
While public sector employees are more likely than workers in the private sector to take days off unwell, the problem is particularly acute in Cardiff.
In 2009/10 the council was the third worst performing of the 22 Welsh councils for absenteeism.
Staff working for neighbouring Vale of Glamorgan council each took three days fewer sick.
A council spokesman said: "The council has 18,000 employees and unlike some local authorities, has in-house services such as waste management and social services which are not office-based jobs and traditionally have higher rates of sickness due to the nature of their work.