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It's been revealed that Birmingham Council splashes out almost £1 million a week on an army of temporary staff. After the news that a “sickie” culture is still alive and well in the local authority, The Stirrer suggests there may well be a connection.

First the facts. Figures just published show that the hiring of temps sets back Birmingham taxpayers some £51.5 million - a truly astonishing statistic even when you allow for the fact that it is the largest local authority in Europe with 55,000 employees. It's now the second biggest spender on temps in the country.

There are times when workers will only be needed for short term projects, of course, but most of the vacancies arise either because a permanent post-holder has left or has a long-term illness.

That's where the “sickie culture” comes in. Birmingham has virtually halved its absenteeism rate since the turn of the century - when council workers had an average of a month off every year in addition to their annual leave - but even at around ten days sick leave a year they are statistically twice as likely to have aday offthan an employee in the private sector.

Traditionally this has been attributed to militant trade unions and weak management who “featherbedded” employees. These days that simply won't wash. The unions have long ceased to terrify the bosses, so we have to look elsewhere for the reasons for such high absence rates.

There's no need to search too far. Just imagine working in Social Services where you are daily coming face to face with some of society's worst problems - child abuse, neglect of the elderly and so on.

Or think what it must be like on the front desk in a Neighbourhood Office in a rundown inner city area being the first point of contact for vulnerable, desperate and sometimes psychotic people knowing that you are unable to solve many of the problems they - and therefore you - are confronted with.

Who wouldn't get depressed by the hopelessness of it all? Stress in these sectors must be an occupational hazard. That's if you can be persuaded to hang around at all - many employees will just flee into a less demanding, better paid job elsewhere.

That's why so many gaps need to be filled, and that - in part at least - is where the temps come in.

The city's Labour opposition quite rightly point out that hiring staff on permanent contracts can work out cheaper, and is ultimately better for staff morale; what they can't escape is responsibility for the old regime which allowed the sickie culture to take hold.

At least the Tory/Lib Dem coalition has been pro-active in tackling it but they are to some extent victims of their own success. They've encouraged a system whereby many council departments issue a “notification of concern” to any staff member who has three bouts of sick leave in a year - but it makes no difference if the absencesare for a day, a week, or a month.

That means a worker off for three isolated days would get a warning letter -while a colleague who went missing twice for three months wouldn't. No wonder many council staff decide that once they are off, they make sure they don't return until they are good and ready. It's a kind of "illness inflation".

The Stirrer also knows of one worker who fell foul of the council's sickie crackdown and took the chance to resign - rather than be sacked - after a series of lengthy stress-related absences.

Management may well have rid themselves of one problem, but who or what was causing thestress in the first place? Poor management possibly, or maybe failures in the way the organisation operates.

So while they may have rid themselves of a sick, “problem” worker,a sick, problematic system may still be in place.

To make further progress the council now needs to dream up a set of finer instruments and also show greater practical recognition of the demands placed on some of their workers.

Just think what could happen if that £51 million were used upfront to provide greater resources and extra staff in the first place - instead of providing cover when they are too knackered or pissed-off to carry on.

Why is so much money being spent on temps? And why does Birmingham Council have a sickie culture? Leave a comment on the Stirrer forum

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