Absenteeism in Northern Ireland Councils 2005-06

30 May 2007

Absenteeism in Northern Ireland Councils 2005-06

The Chief Local Government Auditor, Mr John Buchanan, today published his report on Absenteeism in Northern Ireland councils. The report examines the relative position of absenteeism within Northern Ireland councils and considers absenteeism for the sector as a whole when compared with other employment sectors.


In 2005-06, Northern Ireland councils employed over 9,000 staff at a cost of £229 million.  Staff costs account for approximately 40 per cent of all council’s expenditure.  All councils have the same legislative powers, and although each council has discretion to place a different emphasis on the services delivered.  Local Government services include:

  • The provision and management of recreational, social, community and cultural facilities
  • Environmental health and the enforcement of building regulations
  • Refuse collection and disposal
  • Street cleaning
  • Provision and management of tourist development facilities.

The comparative analysis between councils is three yearly based and an average annual absenteeism rate derived for the period.  This counters the impact of annual fluctuations in absenteeism which could distort our findings, particularly within the smaller Northern Ireland councils.  When considering Northern Ireland councils as a whole analysis reflects the annual position.  The larger scale involved means that the resulting absenteeism data is much less susceptible to year-on-year fluctuations.

Main Findings and Recommendations

  • When viewed as lost productivity, absenteeism in Northern Ireland councils cost £14m in 2005-06.  For 2005-06, Northern Ireland councils as a whole had an average absenteeism rate of 13.73 days.  This rate has improved by slightly less than a day when compared to the 2004-05 rate.  The absenteeism rate for Northern Ireland councils, when taken together, is now lower than at anytime since 2001-02.  
  • With 8.37 days, Fermanagh District Council had the lowest average annual absenteeism rate for the 2003-06 period. The equivalent absenteeism rates for Craigavon Borough Council; Derry City Council; Carrickfergus Borough Council; Newry and Mourne District Council; and Larne Borough Council were more than double the rate recorded in Fermanagh District Council.  
  • The council with the highest average annual absenteeism rate was Larne Borough Council with 20.30 days for the 2003-06 period. This council also experienced the largest increase in its absenteeism rate. The rate recorded for the 2003-06 period is almost five days more than the 2000-03 rate of 15.41 days. Moyle District Council also experienced a significant increase of more than four days in its average annual absenteeism rate.
  • Of the 11 councils showing an improvement over the two periods, Lisburn City Council and Castlereagh Borough Council improved the most with significant reductions of four days in their absenteeism rates.
  • Variations in absenteeism rates between councils appear to have no discernable pattern. One factor which does vary between councils is the management of absenteeism. We recommend that councils with high and rising absenteeism rates should review their own management practices and benchmark these against those councils with low and falling absenteeism rates.
  • Had all councils matched the lowest average annual absenteeism rate of 8.37 days, a total of £5.6 million a year could have been gained in productivity.
  • A comparison of the councils’ 2005-06 absenteeism rate with some other employment sectors shows that Northern Ireland councils as a sector continues to have the highest absenteeism rate. The absenteeism rate for Northern Ireland councils is, however, only marginally higher than the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
  • When compared to the latest figures available for local authorities in England and Wales, the 2005-06 absenteeism rate in Northern Ireland councils is more than two days higher. Different causes of absences would not appear to explain this difference as staff appear to be absent for similar reasons.   In Northern Ireland councils, however, these same causes of absence lead to longer or more frequent periods of absence and consequently higher absence costs.  Had the Northern Ireland absenteeism rate been similar to that of England and Wales, the gain in productivity would have been £2.3 million, or a gain of 90 staff in post throughout the year at no additional cost.
  • Stress, depression, mental health and fatigue causes one fifth of days lost due to absenteeism in Northern Ireland councils and represents £2.8 million in lost productivity.  More than half of Northern Ireland councils told us they had taken action to reduce stress-related absenteeism. It is our view that all councils should be proactive in their management of stress-related absence.
  • There is currently no requirement for Northern Ireland councils to set long term targets for the reduction of absenteeism. In 2005-06, half of the 26 councils had established corporate or departmental level targets for managing absenteeism rates. Only three councils achieved the target set. In each case, it could be argued that the targets were not particularly challenging.  
  • We asked for completed absenteeism data questionnaires to be returned by 30 June 2006. Only five councils had submitted responses on or before this date. By 31 August, some nine weeks later, responses had not been received from three councils: Belfast City Council; Banbridge District Council; and the last council to submit a response, Derry City Council. This council’s completed questionnaire was received on 13 October 2006, 15 weeks after the due date. This report has been substantially delayed due to the late receipt of responses. Had all responses been received by the deadline, this report could have been completed earlier

Notes for Editors

  1. The Chief Local Government Auditor is the Head of the Local Government Audit division within NIAO.  The Department of the Environment may, with the consent of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland designate members of NIAO staff a Local Government Auditor.  The Department may also, with the consent of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, designate a Local Government Auditor as Chief Local Government Auditor.  The Chief Local Government Auditor has statutory authority to undertake comparative and other studies designated to enable him to make recommendations for improving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of services by local government bodies and to publish the results and recommendations.
  2. The Chief Local Government Auditor’s report on ‘Absenteeism in Northern Ireland Councils 2005-06’ is available from the Stationary Office through the United Kingdom.  It is also available on the NIAO website at www.niauditoffice.gov.uk.  The report is embargoed until 00.01 hrs on 30th March 2007.  
  3. Background briefing can be obtained from NIAO by contacting Denver Lynn (028 9025 1063).