Civil Service records highest level of staff sickness absence in a decade

Coughs, colds and flu were major causes of sickness absence
Coughs, colds and flu were major causes of sickness absence

The high level of sickness absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) cost almost £34m in lost production during 2017/18, new figures have revealed.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) today published its ‘Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service 2017/2018’ report, which contains analyses of trends over the last five years as well as headline figures since 1999/2000.

The report reveals that during 2017/18 the average absence figure was 13 days lost per staff year – an increase from 12.5 days the previous year.

According to NISRA, this was the highest level of sickness absence since NICS moved to a new human resources system and recording process in 2008/09, but lower than the peak of 15.5 days recorded in 2003/04.

“The 13 days lost per staff year represented 6% of the available working days in 2017/18,” an NISRA statement explained. “In salary terms, this equated to an estimated £33.8 million of lost production – equivalent to around 4% of the total NICS pay bill in 2017/18.

“Just under half (46.6%) of staff had no recorded absence in 2017/18 – a figure that was negatively impacted by the higher than usual number of cold, cough, flu, influenza absences this year.

Over one in every eight staff had at least one spell of long-term absence (more than 20 consecutive working days), with these spells lasting around three months on average, according to the report.

This was the highest level of long-term absence observed in the last five years, and accounted for nearly three quarters of all working days lost.

Anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses accounted for the greatest proportion of working days lost (36.4%) during 2017/18, with work-related stress accounting for approximately a third of the days lost.

The NISRA figures reveal that the level of absence within departments varied from 7.6 days for the Executive Office to 15.4 days for the Department for Communities (DfC), with half of the departments recording lower absence levels compared to 2016/17.

The report also shows that the absence level for females (15.4 days) remained higher than that for males (10.9 days), with “over half of this difference being due to gender-specific conditions”.

Staff who had been in post for under two years had a much lower level of sickness absence (5.8 days) than staff who had been employed for two years or more (13.2 days), the report also reveals.

Describing the findings as “concerning”, TUV leader Jim Allister MLA said: “This is an issue which has been on the pubic radar for some time and last year I stated my belief that it was an issue the Audit Office would be looking into.

“With the trend continuing to go in the wrong direction the need to do so is even greater now.”

UUP finance spokesperson Steve Aiken MLA claimed sickness absence rates in the NICS are almost double those recorded in the civil service in Great Britain.

“I simply cannot understand how on average civil servants in Northern Ireland can be sick nearly twice as much as those in GB.

“Previous Northern Ireland Executives miserably failed to tackle the number of lost days so I suspect that failure to act may be a key factor as to why our rates remain so high. Long-term absence in the NICS requires urgent attention,” he commented.

Responding to the report, Alison Millar, general secretary of public service union NIPSA, said: “We would like to sit down with management to address the issue of sickness absence and look at the causes of why people are taking time off.”

The full ‘Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service 2017/2018’ is available online at www.nisra.gov.uk