STRESSED social services staff in Wirral are costing the taxpayer more than £15,000 a month because they are too ill to work.

Estimates of the total cost of covering for staff off work because of illness range from £60,000-£78,000 a month from February to May this year.

According to a report to the authority "average stress-related absence over 12 months is approximately 25% of all sickness absence".

The director of social services, Kevin Miller, told the council in a report that absence over the months February to May 2004 fell by 2.2 days, and said although this was still high it showed improvement and their efforts to reduce it are working.

The report said absence had fallen in all areas of the social services department except the Children's Division, which rose by 0.7% and the Youth Offending Team which saw absence increase by 2.8%.

Mr Miller said: "Staff absent from the workplace as a result of stress-related illness cut across all of the department, however, there appears to be significant issues in Children's Services, both residential and fieldwork teams, and in Working Age Adults."

He said: "The Health, Safety and Welfare Unit and managers continue to work with the Occupational Health Service in order to identify actions that can be taken to better support staff."

During the four months from February to May, 137 staff were referred to occupational health for support, and eight staff left who had been on long term sickness absence, according to Mr Miller's report.

Another member of staff left on a career break, two resigned and five were dismissed as a result of medical incapacity. A further four on long term sickness left the department.

Five members of staff were given an oral warning under absence procedures and four were given final written warnings.

A spokeswoman for Wirral Council social services said the figures in the report are estimates of the cost of covering for absences.

She said: "Such costs are only actually incurred in frontline services where staffing numbers and ratios have to be maintained for care standards to be met.

"This is running at approximately £15,500 per week. Approximately 25% is due to stress, suggesting the cost of stress related to absence is £3,875 per week. There are no cover costs for managerial or support staff.

"The department and council as a whole are working actively to reduce the incidence of stress and the impact this has on individuals and the council budget."