Suicide attempts on the subway may be behind a bump in employee absenteeism, the TTC and the union that represents its operators are warning.

Toronto's auditor general found the TTC's paid sick leave costs increased to $33.9 million in 2015, an increase of some $1.2 million from the previous year.

However, there was a decrease in the amount of suicide attempts, according to the transit agency's own data. In 2015, 11 people died by suicide while five more attempted to kill themselves. That was down from 26 incidents in 2014, while the average is 23 incidents per year.

The TTC calls suicide attempts "priority one" incidents and CEO Andy Byford said the trauma is difficult for everyone involved.

"Potentially you have the two train crew, you've got the special constable, perhaps the collector goes down — in one incident you lose these people for several weeks," said Byford.

Bob Kinnear, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents more than 10,000 TTC employees, said some employees need more time to recover than others, but everyone needs some time to process what happened.

"Most people require at least a day or two after being involved in an incident like that," he said.

"Some people, if they're involved directly, can be off for weeks, even months. That's going to drive your absenteeism levels up."

Bullying also an issue, councillor says

Coun. Shelley Carroll, a member of the TTC board, said she believes some employees aren't taking advantage of counselling offered after witnessing a traumatic incident.

'Sometimes operators are bullied by passengers on the bus and if it's disturbing enough there's a problem there.' - Coun. Shelley Carroll

"We do have an employee assistance program. There is psychological counselling and assistance available," said Carroll.

"Here we see a long absence, so it was offered and offered and offered. Did he take us up on it? Do we need to do some extraordinary management counselling to say, 'You really have to talk to someone?'"

Carroll said it's not just the extreme "priority one" incidents that can cause emotional or mental distress.

"Sometimes operators are bullied by passengers on the bus and if it's disturbing enough there's a problem there and us saying, 'Why are you away today?' is not going to help them get over the problem and in fact may lead to more absence," said Carroll.

Kinnear said another factor is TTC workers are required to do shift work, which he said has been shown to have an impact on health.

"Our people are more susceptible to colds and flus and that. I mean you have bus drivers that interact literally with tens of thousands of people on a weekly basis." said Kinnear.

City continuously monitoring sick leave

The increased absenteeism rate came up in the auditor general's report as part of the city's "continuous controls monitoring" — a system of ongoing reporting of city expenses.

The program was first initiated in 2011 to track overtime and other payroll related expenses for city employees and has since expanded to track employee absenteeism.

At city hall, the audit committee agreed with Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler's recommendation that the TTC drill down into the numbers to find out which departments are prone to absenteeism and look for patterns.

Byford said the TTC will comply with that recommendation, but that he doesn't believe system abuse is widespread.

"There's nothing untoward about this — this is genuine sickness. There are a small minority of people who play the system and we have ways to manage them," he said.

The TTC is facing a shortfall of $172.6 million and a request from the mayor's office to deal with a 2.6 per cent reduction in the subsidy it receives from the city, an amount totaling $15.8 million.