Mr Russell said: "A vast amount is spent on sick pay, pound;43 million to be precise, and this does not include the cost of supply teachers. We are sitting on a demographic time bomb with 40 per cent of teachers due to retire in the next 10 years. This issue needs resolution quickly."
The figures provided to Mr Russell by Andy Kerr, Finance Minister, disclosed that there were 288 applications to retire early on health grounds in 1998-99, of which 223 were approved. The figures for 2001-02 were 461 and 357.
Mr Russell hit out at the Executive for failing to act on recommendations in a report last year on teacher stress by the Scottish Council for Research in Education. Recommendations included coping strategies to reduce stress, exit interviews with teachers retiring early and improved data on teacher absence rates and the reasons for early retiral.
He suggested that pound;1 million could be shaved off the bill for sick pay with the introduction of a proper counselling service.
New guidelines for counselling in Scottish schools are to be launched in a fortnight, but they are intended for pupils not staff.
Norfolk, which pioneered a teacher "well-being" programme, found in a survey of headteachers that it had succeeded in improving teacher morale, retaining staff, cutting absenteeism and reducing supply costs.
A similar initiative is being piloted in East Lothian involving the authority and Teacher Support Scotland whose sister organisation in England is operating teacher "worklife support" schemes in 15 authorities.