A CULTURE change is needed among council bosses and staff in York if sickness levels are to fall, according to a task group set up to analyse the issue.

Councillors who staged a review of City of York Council staff sickness rates have claimed some of the authority’s policy on illness is “not in plain English”.

They raised questions about whether managers receive the right training, saying a “rise in staff morale” was needed to reduce absence levels.

The sickness absence management scrutiny review, whose draft final report will be discussed at a meeting on Monday, also aired concerns about the cost to the council of staff missing or not turning up for occupational health appointments.

The bill for 2009/10 – the latest figures provided – was £13,744.

The task group said council policies must make it clear to employees that missing appointments without a good reason might mean disciplinary action.

A report produced by council scrutiny officers on the group’s findings said the Unison union, which was consulted, had said staff filling in for colleagues who are off sick – at the same time as hundreds of job cuts at the authority had a “knock-on negative effect” – and stress assessments needed to be carried out at an early stage. The union also questioned whether staff and managers got enough support over dealing with stress.

The report said: “The task group noted the council’s policy [on sickness absence] was lengthy, repetitive, in parts not in plain English, and trying to be all things to all people.

“It concluded the current policy document was not suitable and a short, clear and succinct policy for employees would be more appropriate.

“Overall, the task group concluded improvements in training and induction, an updating of the policy and a rise in staff morale would, over time, assist in changing the culture of the organisation.”

However, the report said the task group realised change would be “difficult and take time” and there was no “quick fix”.

Responding to Unison’s concerns, the council’s human resources department said work on “stress risk assessments” was continuing, but some training sessions on health issues had been “poorly attended”.

It said a “web portal” offering staff advice and support on areas including stress, health and debt management was being launched and a “first contact network”, where employees are trained to provide confidential advice, was operating, while counselling was available through the council’s occupational health contract with York Hospital.