Sick-note stats prompt ‘culture of bullying’ claim at North Norfolk District Council

Former chairman David Russell believes the rise in sick-notes among staff at North Norfolk District

Former chairman David Russell believes the rise in sick-notes among staff at North Norfolk District Council could be a sign a culture of bullying exists at the local authority. Picture: NNLP/Colin Finch - Credit: NNLP/Colin Finch

Local authority employees claim more than FIVE YEARS OFF in just 12 months.

A spike in the number of sick days claimed by staff at a beleaguered council has prompted claims a 'culture of bullying' exists at the local authority - a claim officials have strenuously denied.

North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) has confirmed it lost 1859 working days - the equivalent of more than five years - due to staff absences through illness in just 12 months in 2016.

That was an increase of 212 days, or around seven months, on the figure for the previous year (2015), when staff took 1647 sick days.

The figures, which were obtained by this newspaper through a Freedom of Information request, also revealed that of the council's 306 employees in 2016, more than half - 182 in total - took a sick day at some point.

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That was an increase of the 173 employees who claimed time off due to illness in 2015, when the council had 301 employees.

The longest period of sickness recorded was 151 days in 2016, and 94 days in 2015. And the most common excuse given was cold or flu.

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However, work-related stress, exhaustion and depression were some of the other reasons given.

The North Norfolk Labour Party claim the statistics are a sign that morale is at an all-time low at the council, which is run by a Conservative administration from offices in Holt Road, Cromer.

It marks a turbulent year for NNDC which saw three senior officials, including its chief executive, quit for a neighbouring authority following a failed power-sharing agreement.

Commenting on the findings, former district council chairman David Russell, who is standing for the Labour Party in the Waterside by-election next month, said: 'The reason for that may be they (employees) are unhappy when councillors vote themselves a big fat pay rise and staff don't get anything like that at all.

'When I visit the council, staff are always very polite but I sense there is a culture of bullying - because if there wasn't staff wouldn't be having so much time off.

'When I was there (previously) that would not have happened because I was also chairman of the personnel committee and the manager would be hauled up in front of the committee and it would have been stopped.'

North Norfolk District Council argued the statistics show that the council has second best rate of sickness of local authorities in Norfolk with 6.05 working days lost to sickness absence (FTE) in 2015/16 ; this was a fall from the statistics in 2014/15 from 6.76 working days were lost to sickness absence.

And it revealed it had not received any reports of bullying at the council in the past year.

A council spokesman said: 'The council takes the issue of well-being of our staff very seriously and is mindful of the need to support staff who work in public services.

'Our sickness statistics are 29% below average for public sector organisations – the national average for public sector absence is 8.5 working days per FTE employee as per Local Government Workforce Survey.

'The council was recently awarded an Investors in People Gold Award for its commitment to staff and encouraging a supportive, caring culture; this positively recognised our commitment to managing staff sickness.'

And they added: 'We regularly report on our sickness statistics and have a culture of supporting our staff through effective policies and procedures. Sickness statistics are discussed every quarter with Unison, members and management and this enables the council to respond quickly when there may be issues of flu e.g. offering flu vaccination programme which was taken up by 107 people.'

The council also pointed out the number of staff on long-term sick leave could distort the figures.

The spokesman continued: 'The incidence of long-term sickness had decreased from 2014/15 to 2015/16 with fewer staff taking long-term sick. The quarterly stats for 2016/17 show that the number of people with long term sickness has increased to seven in the first quarter of 2016/17. Given that our statistics are so low when one or two people are on long term sick this will have a significant effect on the statistics.'

It has challenged anyone with evidence of bullying to come forward and reassured them they take allegations seriously.

The council spokesman added: 'The council takes any incidents of bullying very seriously and would include Unison in any discussions or investigations of such incidents. Unison and the Council work very closely to make sure that there is a strong no-bullying culture and would work together to address any issues should they occur.'

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