A RAFT of physical and mental illnesses are causing a stubbornly high sickness absence rate at Lancashire County Council, cabinet members have been told.

Rates of workers needing medical tests and treatments has increased by 30 percent over the past year, while mental health-related absence remains at what was described by the authority’s human resources head as “a high level”.

Deborah Barrow told cabinet members previous progress made on reducing absence had been reversed – putting the organisation back to where it was more than 12 months ago.

Between January and April, there were 12.85 days sickness absence for every one of the more 10,000 full-time equivalent employees.

The figure merited a ‘requires improvement’ rating in the authority’s latest corporate performance report – because it is higher than County Hall’s target level of 11.25 days.

During the second half of last year, Ms. Barrow said there had also been “a spike in respiratory illness” amongst staff. 

The timeframe coincided with a sustained Covid wave, according to limited testing data now available for the virus.

Meanwhile, cabinet members were also told there had been a 20 per cent jump in cancer diagnoses among county employees.

Ms Barrow said the overall picture had prompted a “deeper dive” into the root causes of absence, with a new “people analytics” role created so the authority can intervene earlier and more effectively to help reduce sickness within its workforce.

“We expect our leaders will continue to support the health of our employees…not only to manage absence, but avoid it,” she said.

One new policy sees employees referred to occupational health if they take even a single day off sick for mental health reasons.

Adult services is most affected by overall absence rates but sickness rates fluctuates significantly across the council as a whole – meaning there is an opportunity to learn from those service areas where levels are lower.

Deputy county council leader Alan Vincent said: "When we have a lot of people taking days off [for] sickness – while we appreciate there is usually a reason for that – the impact on the colleagues that they work with can be quite severe.

“It also means that in certain areas of [the work] we do, we have to bring in agency staff – and that means that we are paying a lot more…to cover people who are absent.

“We are all in this together and…we need to improve the number of absences that we have – but we also need to obviously ensure our staff are as healthy as we can keep them,."

County Cllr Aidy Riggott, growth boss, added: "I’m always concerned about those members of staff who are always here every day, all the time, clearly picking up extra work.  We don’t want [there to come] a tipping point where we start losing good staff because the culture of the organisation isn’t equally balanced and fair."

The authority now plans to move away from the current yardstick of FTE employee absence to a more “meaningful” percentage figure, Ms Barrow added.