Civil servants' sick leave: Ill-feeling growing as union and minister clash over time off
Questions have been raised after the extent of long-term sick leave among civil servants was revealed.
According to new Government statistics, almost half of civil servants took time off on the sick in the last financial year.
And of those who were off, one-tenth were out for a period of around three months.
The highest levels of absence from work on health grounds occurred among prison officers, women and older workers.
Latest figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show that, on average, staff members took 10.6 sick days, up from 10.1 the previous year and short of the 9.5 day target set by the Executive in its Programme for Government.
In terms of wages paid during sick leave, this equates to £30.8m, an increase of £2.2m on last year's £28.6m bill. In all, 275,170 working days were lost, amounting to 4.9% of total working days available.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who is responsible for Civil Service pay, clashed with the unions on how to tackle the problem.
Mr Hamilton said there was no "dilution in the focus across NI departments to tackle the sickness absence problem".
He added "managing attendance and reducing sick absence is a key priority for departments, and clearly our work must continue and indeed intensify in some areas to ensure that the targets which are set out in the Programme for Government are achieved".
However, Bumper Graham of the public service union Nipsa accused Mr Hamilton and his department of making the problem worse by pushing though cuts and efficiencies regardless of staff morale.
"What does Simon Hamilton expect when he is reigning over a regime of daily attacks on Civil Service pay, pensions, terms and conditions and jobs?" the union official asked.
He said that failure to fill vacant posts and the fear of job loss was contributing to rising stress levels among his members.
Of all civil servants who took sick leave, one in 10 was absent for around three months.
Such long-term absences accounted for the vast bulk – around 70% – of the total working days lost over the whole year.
Mr Hamilton said that he was disappointed in the general upward trend in sick leave within the Civil Service.
He added he had asked his officials "to review our policies and procedures and to consider any changes or strategies that may be necessary to ensure our targets are met".
* The average sick leave in 2012/2013 was 10.6 days
* That is up from 10.1 days in the previous year and short of the annual target of 9.5 days.
* £30.8m of lost production in salary terms
* More than half of staff (52.3%) had no recorded absence
* 10.4% were absent on average for around three months