Absenteeism in Northern Ireland Councils 2006-07

30 January 2008

Absenteeism in Northern Ireland Councils 2006-07

The Chief Local Government Auditor, Mr John Buchanan, today published his 2006-07 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 2006-07, Northern Ireland councils employed over 9,300 staff at a cost of £249 million. Staff costs account for more than 40 per cent of councils’ expenditure. All councils have the same legislative powers, 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 with 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 £15.5m in 2006-07. For 2006-07 Northern Ireland councils as a whole had an average absenteeism rate of 13.82 days. This rate has increased marginally when compared to the 2005-06 rate of 13.73 days. The 2006-07 absenteeism rate for Northern Ireland councils remains lower than the rates recorded for the years 2002-03 to 2004-05.
  • Increased staff costs in Northern Ireland councils of £20m, when combined with the slightly higher level of absenteeism, have increased lost productivity due to absence by £1.5m, from £14m in 2005-06. This increase in lost productivity represents 4,000 additional days absence (125,000 in 2005-06, 129,000 in 2006-07).
  • With 7.41 days, Magherafelt District Council had the lowest average annual absenteeism rate for the 2004-07 period. The equivalent absenteeism rates for ten councils were more than double the rate recorded in Magherafelt District Council.
  • The council with the highest average annual absenteeism rate was Larne Borough Council with 20.29 days for the 2004-07 period. Almost one third of this was due to stress related absenteeism, the highest proportion recorded by any Northern Ireland council.
  • Coleraine Borough Council experienced the largest increase in its absenteeism rate. The rate recorded for the 2004-07 period is more than three and a half days higher than the 2001-04 rate.
  • Of the 12 councils showing an improvement over the two periods, Newry and Mourne District Council and Banbridge District Council improved the most with significant reductions of four days in their absenteeism rates.
  • Variations in absenteeism rates between councils, and the proportion of this attributable to stress related absence, 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 7.41 days, a total of £6.8 million a year could have been gained in productivity.
  • A comparison of the councils’ 2006-07 absenteeism rate with some other employment sectors shows that Northern Ireland councils as a sector continues to have a high absenteeism rate. The absenteeism rate for Northern Ireland councils is, however, marginally lower than the Northern Ireland Health Service.
  • Stress, depression, mental health and fatigue remain the largest cause of absenteeism, responsible for one fifth of days lost in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. Lost productivity due to stress related absence cost Northern Ireland councils £3.1m in 2006-07.
  • There is currently no requirement for Northern Ireland councils to set long term targets for the reduction of absenteeism. In 2006-07, 19 of the 26 councils had established corporate or departmental level targets for managing absenteeism rates. North Down Borough Council was the only council which met its set target for 2006-07.
  • We asked for completed absenteeism data questionnaires to be returned by 29 June 2007. Fifteen councils had submitted responses on or before this date. By 31 August, some nine weeks later, completed responses were outstanding from two councils.This report has been delayed due to the late receipt of responses.

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 2006-07 is available from the Stationery Office throughout 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 January 2008.
  3. Commentary on each council’s three year average annual absenteeism rate is at Appendix 2 of the report.
  4. Background briefing can be obtained from NIAO by contacting Denver Lynn (028 9025 1063).