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Staff sickness costs health service collosal £100m in Northern Ireland

Staff illness levels leave Northern Ireland's troubled health service with a colossal financial headache

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 14/01/2016

A breakdown showed the Belfast Trust - the largest in Northern Ireland - paid £35,701,229 for staff on sick leave over the financial year
A breakdown showed the Belfast Trust - the largest in Northern Ireland - paid £35,701,229 for staff on sick leave over the financial year

Staff sickness across the crisis-hit Northern Ireland health service cost the economy more than £100m in the last year, shocking new figures have revealed.

From 2014/15 the six health Trusts, including the NI Ambulance Service, paid more than £107m for health workers on sick leave.

It has led to warnings that the spiralling levels of sickness are putting an unbearable strain on the already struggling service.

Unions have said the consistently high costs for absenteeism - which is about 2% of the overall £4.7bn health budget - are a "manifestation" of the stress that staff are experiencing throughout the province.

A breakdown showed the Belfast Trust - the largest in Northern Ireland - paid £35,701,229 for staff on sick leave over the financial year.

The figures also showed the Northern Trust paid out £22,833,320 and the Western Trust followed with £17,313,741. The NI Ambulance Service HSC Trust paid almost £4m.

The figures emerged in an answer finally published this week to an Assembly question which was tabled last July by DUP MLA Alex Easton.

Previous research showed that out of around 70,000 staff at the end of August 2014, 2,234 full-time staff across the financially stretched Department of Health were on sick leave. Absences due to sickness between April and September 2014 amounted to up to 5% of the total staff pay bill.

Union Unite, which represents more than 4,000 health workers, says the current figures demonstrate the biggest asset of the NHS - the staff - are at breaking point.

In response the biggest nursing union in Northern Ireland,the Royal College of Nursing, has said not enough has been done to address sickness absence levels.

Kevin McAdam from Unite, however, said he was not surprised by the figures.

"I'm not at all surprised to see there is no reduction in the cost of sickness at this moment given the current pressures and the insulting pay award and lack of pay settlement enforced by the minister," he said.

"It is no wonder that people feel undervalued and demeaned, that in itself has an impact on people's health."

Nurses were left angered after Mr Hamilton last week said nurses could expect to receive a 1% one-off payment, under a long-awaited offer from the government.

Mr McAdam said there are Trusts who take steps to deal with sickness levels seriously but the real issue of understaffing is not being addressed.

"The real problem is there are too few staff trying to do too much work, again for less money and that has a direct impact on people's health. This is what we are seeing," he added.

Mr McAdam said the issue of low pay is also a contributory factor.

"Northern Ireland has the lowest paid healthcare workers in the UK. The biggest thing the Health Service runs on, and the Health Minister cannot and will not accept, is morale and goodwill. They are two essential criteria to run it and they are undermining that. Those figures are the manifestation of all the problems that we have told them they are facing."

Garrett Martin, deputy director of the RCN in Northern Ireland said they have consistently been raising concerns at a regional level that not enough is being done to address sickness absence levels in the HSC.

"Stress, and related mental ill-health, is the single biggest cause of sickness absence in the HSC and its prevalence is particularly high among nursing staff," he said.

"Pressure at work can be motivating and stimulating, but when it exceeds an individual's ability to cope this can lead to ill health. Not enough is being done to firstly understand the reasons for the high sickness absence levels and secondly, to address it."

Mr Martin added that action was needed to address the problem. "Cost-saving measures that resulted in vacancy freezes and slowing recruitment processes alongside increasing demand have taken their toll on the nursing profession," he said.

"Until some of the big issues that face the service are addressed, such as ensuring there are enough staff to care for patients properly, it is likely that pressure and stress at work will continue to impact on staff."

A DHSSPS spokeswoman said: "HSC front-line employees deal with infectious/sick and vulnerable patients and have more physically demanding roles, therefore it would be reasonable for these employees to exhibit higher levels of sickness absence than other sectors. You cannot ignore the demands this places on staff and the toll it can take on their health. That is why it is important to ensure that we set realistic, achievable sickness absence targets, backed up by supportive policies in the Trusts."

The spokeswoman added: "Sickness absence has a cost and the HSC Trusts are working hard to try and proactively manage these through a range of measures, such as training for managers, early referrals to OHS, stress management training, resilience training and management of unacceptable absence using trigger points."

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