STAFF sick days at Mid Devon District Council are on track to hit a five-year high.

Each employee has been off ill eight days so far this financial year, but it is on course to reach 10.5 days by April.

A report for Mid Devon District Council’s scrutiny committee said sickness days per full-time equivalent employee was 9.9 days on average in the last financial year, which was higher than the three preceding 12-month periods.

The council’s existing sickness policy expects staff to have no more than six days of absence in a rolling 12-month period.

James Hamblin, the council’s HR manager, said sickness absence and its impacts on other employees “remains an ongoing challenge for the council”.

He added: “However we have been providing in-house training to managers to help them manage sickness absence.

“And it’s worth saying that sickness absence nationally is a challenge, although we acknowledge it is imperative to look at our own reasons for absences.”

Councillor Gwen Duchesne (Liberal Democrat, Halberton) questioned whether higher levels of absences were linked to how the council handles vacancies.

It wants to make £400,000 in savings by not immediately filling roles when people leave, and only rehiring into those that are most important.

“I do feel there could be a correlation between the fact that we’re delaying filling staff vacancies and this sickness issue, as it seems to me a fairly obvious link,” Cllr Duchesne said.

Mr Hamblin said recent media coverage of employee sickness had suggested it was a national issue, but that this didn’t mean the council couldn’t investigate its own situation further.

He added that the council had relaunched its “mental health champions” scheme in December, which helps train staff to support colleagues with mental health issues or to signpost them to relevant services, and it had worked to improve its benefits scheme for employees, including heavily discounted leisure membership.

The council also enables staff under 50 get free flu jabs to help prevent them being off sick over winter. The jab is only given free by the NHS to people over 65, unless they qualify for it.

Mr Hamblin added that something called “presenteeism” remained an issue, with some staff continuing to work even though they were ill, but doing so from home.

He said the council had made it clear that individuals shouldn’t work if they believe they are sick.

Bradley Gerrard