Fears over justice staff sickness
High and rising levels of sickness absence at Stormont's justice department are unsustainable amid severe budget cuts, an official has warned.
A "step change" is required to address long term and intermittent sick leave, a senior civil servant from the department said.
Most staff at departmental agencies like the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) work in front line roles. In 2011/12 the number of days lost per staff year was almost 13.
A Department of Justice official said: "The current high and rising levels of sickness absence are unsustainable, particularly in the context of severe budget constraints and significantly reducing workforce numbers."
She added there was a possibility not all sickness was being recorded.
Targets may be set for reducing absence in specified areas, minutes of the meeting added, with t he deputy director noting "that the figures remain a cause for concern and that a step change will be required to address both long term and intermittent sick absence".
Assaults on warders linked to prison overcrowding contributes to sickness absence, according to the authorities. Stormont's justice committee has taken evidence about the issue.
Prison Service director general Sue McAllister told MLAs late last year: "While three quarters of our staff have not taken statutory sick leave in the last 12 months, it is still too high. This impacts on the officers on the ground.
"We, as a management team, are determined to address this serious issue."
She added: "We believe that we have got much better at supporting our colleagues who are sick and having sensible discussions with them about returning to work and what we can do as managers to support them while they are off sick.
"It is very much not one size fits all. It is certainly not a punitive approach to people's being off sick; it is very much a supportive approach."
The number of assaults increased by a tenth across two years to 2013, although the prison population also grew by almost 7% during that period.
The justice committee noted action being taken by the Department of Justice to address sickness absence levels, including: a more proactive approach to the management of sickness absence; application of the civil service human resources policy across the department; as well as the roll-out of further training programmes to assist line managers.
A DoJ spokesman said: "The Department of Justice continues to take a proactive approach to the management of sickness absence including application of NI Civil Service policies and procedures such as written warnings, dismissals and ill health retirements where appropriate.
"A high priority is placed on the health and wellbeing of staff and a range of support services are provided. The vast majority of DoJ staff operate in front line roles, including prison grades, which creates particular pressures. It is noteworthy that during 2013/14 (latest available full-year statistics), 58% of DoJ staff had no sickness absence."