SUNDERLAND City Council has spent almost £80,000 on helping staff cope with stress-related illnesses.
The authority paid out £78,685.88 to Alliance Psychological Services for employee counselling in 2011, according to a Freedom of Information request.
The cash-strapped council is third-highest in a list of North East authorities for average sick days.
Civic centre chiefs today defended the spend, claiming the average number of sick days has gone down from 12.25 days in 2006, to 9.52 days in 2011/12.
Robert Oliver, leader of the Conservatives in Sunderland, said: “It’s a lot of money the council is spending that’s going out of the city, because Alliance Psychological Services are based in Stockton.
“Whilst it’s good that the sickness and absence rate has been reduced, it is still high and a lot of people in the city will be concerned that they are paying that much.
“It’s still high and clearly when public money is being spent then everything must be done to make sure the rate of sickness and absence is as low as possible.”
Council leader Paul Watson hit back at Coun Oliver, saying criticising the figures were “taking the story away from the real issue of unemployment and the travesties of the economy”, which he said have been created by the Government.
He added: “It’s not about persuading people to come to work.
“The issue is when employees become unfit for work.
“We can see with court cases that have gone before, particularly with local authorities, that it could cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds if the employer doesn’t treat the employee properly.”
Defending the use of Alliance Psychological Services to carry out the work, Coun Watson said: “Alliance Psychological Services provide a professional, clinical service that meets the council’s procurement processes.
“The work is in line with the aim and statutory requirements of all major employees to protect and promote the health and well-being of all staff.
“Stress is recognised as an industrial disease and if the city council did not act then it could find itself with the threat of litigation.
“The council has a duty of care to all its employees.
“Apart from being good practice, it’s all also something that a good employer would do.”