A DRIVE to tackle persistently high sickness levels at a council where staff take more than double the national average time off work is paying dividends, a meeting has heard.

Darlington Borough Council’s efficiency and resources scrutiny committee heard that a range of initiatives had led to 948 fewer days being taken off for sickness in the final three months of 2018 than for the same period in 2017.

The authority, which has about 3,000 staff, has projected that the average worker will have taken 8.2 days off work due to sickness in the last year.

Members were told of the 8,296 days lost between October and December, stress and mental health-related absence was the highest cause, accounting for 31 per cent of days lost, of which 37 per cent was considered to be work-related.

Stress was given as the cause of just 26.4 per cent of absences by the authority’s staff in 2016/17.

The improvement in sickness rates follows the authority reporting its staff being ill for an average of 9.22 days last year, a reduction of half a day from 2016/17.

Elizabeth Davison, the council’s assistant director finance and human resources, told members while relatively high sickness levels had continued at the council for some years, sickness absences were now on a downward trajectory.

She said a concerted effort to identify health-related issues and work put into a health and wellbeing programme for the past two years was behind the improvements.

The council, which offers counselling and physiotherapy for workers, has introduced wellbeing events and occupational health briefs for staff, a flexi-time policy to address absence rates. It has also worked to tackle issues that create stress for workers, such as by giving adult services front line officers laptops to reduce pressure and enable a better work life balance.

A report to the meeting added: “Whilst it is difficult to prove a direct correlation between flu jabs and a reduction in influenza it is hoped this initiative will contribute to a continued reduced absence...”

Ms Davison said: “It has been a long haul, but we are seeing the depression and stress areas and others areas which manifest themselves under the stress banner but can be helped by wellbeing, are getting better.”

After the meeting, the committee’s chairman Councillor Ian Haszeldine paid tribute to all those behind the “hard work” in tackling the issue and said he hoped average sickness levels of nearly ten days would be a thing of the past for the council, which was good at listening to its staff.

He said: “We were very concerned that it got to that level, but when you think about the level of stress that some of the staff have been under due to the austerity cuts over the last few years it’s not that bad a figure.”