Civil Service sick leave in Northern Ireland at highest level in ten years

Suffering from the flu
Suffering from the flu

Sick leave taken by civil servants in Northern Ireland has reached its highest level in ten years.

On average members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service were off on sickness absence for more than two and half weeks in 2017/18, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

The 13-day average was up from the 12.5 recorded the previous year and was the highest rate since 2008/09.

NISRA said the total absence, in salary terms, equated to an estimated £33.8 million of lost production - equivalent to around 4.0% of the total NICS pay bill in 2017/2018.

The 13 days equates to 6.0% of the available working days in that 12-month period.

Just under half of the 20,000-plus workforce - 47% - had no recorded absences in the year, while more than one in eight had at least one spell of long-term absence, lasting around three months on average.

NISRA said that was highest level of long-term absence recorded in the last five years, accounting 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%. Of those, a third said their conditions were work-related stress.

The absence level for women - 15.4 days - remained higher than that for men - 10.9 days. NISRA said more than half of that differential was linked to gender-specific conditions.

Within government departments, the Executive Office had the lowest absence rate - 7.6 days - while the Department for the Communities had the highest - 15.4 days.

The statisticians found that those 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.

NISRA noted that around half of the staff employed for under two years would have been on probationary terms and conditions, which include more stringent management of sickness absence.

Public service union NIPSA blamed the management of the civil service.

NIPSA general secretary, Alison Millar, said: "After last year's report we raised with NICS management the need to do more to address in particular the level of illness due to anxiety, stress, depression and psychiatric illness

"We offered to work jointly to see what could be done, in response we were told all that could be done was being done.

"This is not the case, management continue to make cuts, attack terms and conditions, change how people work and pile on more pressure whilst totally failing to address the root cause of the problem.

"The report considers various figures and factors, including that mental health issues account for 36% of absence and within that category work-related stress accounted for approximately a third of the days lost."

Ms Millar condemned what she described as "hype" around the annual publication of the report.

"Each year the NI Statistics Agency is allowed to issue a report that is based on data only and not informed by the true reasons that lie behind the data," she said.

"NICS management do not comment on the report, as they know only too well that they carry the responsibility for a workplace that fails to properly assess the problems and fails to protect staff from the harm caused by applying continuous additional pressure on staff with less resources. It is time for NICS Management to properly engage with NIPSA to improve the working environment."

She added: "It is time to stop this annual ritual of a witch hunt against civil servants and for the civil service and others to understand that the pressures on civil servants both economic and workplace pressures are the cause with the resultant adverse impact on health and morale.

"Rather than taking the current approach and being focused on ill-informed target setting I again call on the management to sit down with NIPSA to seek real and meaningful resolutions to the causes of ill-health in the workplace".

A Department of Finance spokesman said: "The increase in the level of sickness absence across the service is disappointing.

"With a workforce of over 20,000 the reality is that people are going to get sick and 86.5% of working days lost during this period were covered by a medical certificate.

"It is important for context to acknowledge that just under half of our staff 46.6% had no recorded absence in 2017/18.

"Today's report recognises that a higher than usual number of people suffered from cold, cough, flu, influenza over this 12-month period."

He added: "Reducing sick absence remains a priority for all departments and it is vital that work on this area continues.

"The challenge for the NICS is to ensure all staff have the necessary health and wellbeing support at the right time in the right place."