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'Shocking' sickness rates in social work

Stress blamed for absence rate that is 60% higher than national average

Social workers are taking "shocking" levels of sick leave – far higher than the national average – prompting protests they are being subjected to intolerable pressure.

Freedom of Information requests discovered that the average social worker takes almost 12 days off a year through illness – with one in 10 calling in sick at least 20 times. The figures emerged after the government launched a campaign to recruit more than 5,000 new social workers. There are currently 2,700 vacancies in the profession amid fears that the outrage over Baby P's death has deterred many people from choosing a social work career.

The sickness totals, compiled by the Liberal Democrat MP Annette Brooke, were based on returns from more than two-thirds of councils in England.

Social workers' annual absence rate was 11.8 days a year – 60 per cent higher than the national average of 7.4 days for all employees. The highest figure was in the London Borough of Hounslow, whose social workers took almost a month (28.3 days) off through illness.

The problem was recorded in all parts of England and in both urban and predominantly rural authorities. Particularly high sickness rates were reported in Somerset (27.8 days), Coventry (19.2), Cornwall (17.7), Sefton in Merseyside (17.5), Cumbria (17.3) and Bournemouth (16.1). The figures will be contained in a child protection paper to next week's Liberal Democrat conference.

Ms Brooke, the party's children's spokeswoman, told The Independent: "These shocking figures show the impact of the huge stresses social workers are under. The incredibly high number of vacancies leaves them spread too thin, working under huge pressure and dealing with a lack of resources and mountains of paperwork."

The sickness rate is more than two days higher than the national average in the public sector of 9.7 days, including 11 in the National Health Service, 10.2 in the police and 7.5 in education. The average in the private sector is 6.4 days' absence.

Some 80 per cent of social workers told a recent union survey that the pressures at work had increased over the past year. They reported that they worked 12 per cent longer hours than their contract specified.

Last night Hilton Dawson, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: "They face stress, an inordinate workload, intrusive managements and very difficult work situations. The media coverage of the profession is horrendous. It's the most undervalued, least respected and least understood profession in Britain."

He said that new recruits were often thrown into the most difficult situations, adding: "I regularly hear about newly qualified social workers being burnt-out after just 18 months in the job."

Local council leaders have warned that potential recruits are being deterred from the profession because of the "witch-hunt" over the Baby P tragedy. Ministers this month launched a recruitment campaign, including advertisements featuring the actress Samantha Morton and the musician Goldie, who were raised in children's homes. It has already produced interest from thousands of candidates.

* Employees taken ill while they are on leave would be able to claim back the holiday time they have lost, following a ruling in the European Court of Justice. The CBI warned that the judgement, in a case involving a Spanish council worker, was "open to abuse".