East Ayrshire Council should not return to ‘draconian’ disciplinary policy despite rocketing absence rates, according to a new report.

The report to the council’s cabinet revealed that the number of sick days has risen by 22.5 per cent in a year to 82,050, with a more than a quarter stress related.

Ironically, the report revealed that the service with the highest number of stress related sick days per person (6.5 days) was in Wellbeing and Recovery, the service which works to tackle employee stress.

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The impact of Covid, both directly and indirectly, has also fuelled the rise.

Having looked at other councils and facing challenges from trade unions, EAC has changed its approach to absences and moved to a ‘staged process of absence reviews’ instead of the stricter disciplinary actions used previously.

A report to EAC cabinet states: “This [disciplinary action] had been challenged as being draconian in nature for employees who were absent due to ill health and it was not in keeping with the approach of other councils.”

The report adds that the focus has ‘changed from managing absence to supporting employees’ wellbeing’.

Having seen days lost decrease in 2019/20 to 2020/21, absence rates have been on the rise since then.

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An analysis has been undertaken of the increasing rates in absence broken down by reason.

The most significant increase relates to Long Covid, which has risen by 240 per cent.

The report said the figures proved that there is a direct lasting impact of COVID-19 on absence rates, with confirmed cases of covid sick days increasing by 35 per cent.

Having never previously been part of the statistics, covid accounted for  5697 lost days, seven per cent of the total.

It is also suggested that the pandemic has also led to higher numbers relating to operations and personal stress, as well as less obvious knock on effects.

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“Colds/flu absences have increased by 38 per cent which could partly be attributed to the impact of the pandemic in which people are less inclined to attend work when they have a contagious illness.

“Respiratory related absences have increased by 25 per cent in the last year which is likely to be linked to another secondary impact of the pandemic, with many people suffering longer term respiratory issues after contracting Covid-19.

Absence levels due to cancer have increased by 46% since 2021/22  reflecting increasing national rates with 1 in 2 people now being diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

Personal stress continues to be the biggest reason for absence by a considerable margin and increased by 25 per cent in the last year.

Also, when taken together with the work related stress absence, stress it equates to 21,695 days lost in 2022/23 (more than a quarter of all absences).

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The report also explains that manual jobs tend to have higher absence rates.

It states: “This would reflect issues such as employees in these areas not having the possible option to work from home if they are unwell.”

One of the reasons for a poorer performance in comparison with other authorities was the way absences were recorded.

East Ayrshire had reduced working days lost for part time employees according to the hours worked per week, but is now recording the days actually lost with no further calculation.

Older people tend to take a sick days more than younger staff. More than half of the council workforce aged 45 or over, but they account for almost 70 per cent of lost days.

This compares with employees aged 17 to 24, who make up six percent of the workforce but only three percent of the absences.

The report indicates that any changes to sickness allowance would impact the lowest paid frontline workers who have no option to work from home.

“In light of the current challenges that are being faced due to the cost of living, any potential change to the income of employees would significantly impact on their financial situation and also on their mental as well as physical wellbeing.”

Councillors will be asked to consider recommendations to roll out further advice and training, establish an independent review panel to consider complex absence cases, and note the review of the management of stress in the council.