STRESS among council workers is forcing them to miss work, say union leaders.

Swindon council staff are off sick more than 10 days a year each and union bosses say workers could be staying home because of stress.

In 2005 the council pledged to improve its sickness absences rate of 9.25 days. It aimed to reduce sickness absence to 7.5 days each year per employee by 2010.

But, nearly three years on, the level has actually increased to 10.02 days.

Bob Cretchley, from the Swindon branch of Unison, said: "Many of our members do have potentially hazardous jobs - working at old people's homes, for example, or with Swindon Commercial Services - which can lead to injuries. There are also a lot of members off work with stress-related illnesses.

"This has a lot to do with the constant change and turmoil which has happened because of the re-structuring and transformation at the council.

"This has had a knock-on effect which has seen jobs disappear or merge. This has all manifested itself in an increase in stress related illness."

Swindon Council spokesman Richard Freeman said: "It has to be remembered that we have reduced the figure dramatically from 15 days per employee per year.

"While it's disappointing that the number of days of absence per employee has now risen slightly, we remain confident that we can reduce sickness absence levels in the council further. We have already put in place a number of measures to improve the wellbeing of our staff.

"The most common reasons for absence are either injuries to staff whose job involves a great deal of manual labour, or in caring roles where an infectious condition could have serious consequences for the people being cared for.

"While staff absence figures for Swindon Council are above the average for similar authorities across the UK, we are not in the bottom quarter.

"Many comparable authorities have contracted out services such as refuse collection - which means that staff who are absent through injury are not recorded."

In September 2004 the council revealed its employees were taking an average of 15.9 days off each year, meaning 91,200 working days were lost.

Coun Fionuala Foley (Con, Old Town and Lawn), cabinet member for corporate affairs, said: "We are committed to delivering what we promise - we don't make false promises and we put our hands up when something isn't going as well. It's disappointing the way it's going but we have an action plan in place."

Peter Smith, of Swindon's National Union of Teachers, said: "I think this whole idea of giving promises in regards to sickness is wrong. In my experience it ends up with workers coming into the office despite not being at all fit for work.

"The idea of management putting pressure on people to work when they are unwell is totally wrong."