The top reasons why so many Lancashire County Council staff are off sick - and what is being done about it

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

The number 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 head of human resources as “a high level”.

Deborah Barrow was speaking at a cabinet meeting where it was revealed previous progress made on reducing absence had been entirely reversed - putting the organisation back to where it was more than 12 months ago.

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As of the final quarter of 2023/24, there were 12.85 days sickness absence across the year for every one of the more 10,000 full-time equivalent employees of the county council.

Lancashire County Council is trying to tackle a sickness problem amongst its staffLancashire County Council is trying to tackle a sickness problem amongst its staff
Lancashire County Council is trying to tackle a sickness problem amongst its staff

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. While no further details were given about the nature of that illness, the timeframe coincided with a sustained Covid wave, according to the limited testing data that is now available for the virus.

Meanwhile, cabinet members were also told that there had been a 20 percent jump in cancer diagnoses amongst county council employees.

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

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

Amongst the new policies already being implemented is one which sees employees referred to occupational health if they take even a single day off sick for mental health reasons.

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

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Deputy county council leader Alan Vincent said the situation was “a matter of concern”.

“When we have a lot of people taking days off [for] sickness - whilst we appreciate that 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 that our staff are as healthy as we can keep them,” said County Cllr Vincent, who added that he was not making any “direct criticism”.

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Cabinet member for economic development and growth Aidy Riggott noted the impact of high sickness levels on ”consistent service delivery for residents” - as well as the ability to retain employees.

“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,” County Cllr Riggott added.

As part of its ongoing investigation into sickness rates, the authority plans to move away from the current yardstick of FTE employee absence to a more “meaningful” percentage figure, Deborah Barrow explained.


Total number of employees: 13,258 (10,312 full-time equivalents)

Average age: 48

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Length of service: 29.5 percent have worked for the authority more than 15 years

Sex: Female - 73.7 percent; Male - 26.7 percent

Turnover: 13.5 percent

Source: Lancashire County Council Workforce Report, December 2023

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