Northern Ireland ambulance staff had 32,000 sick days at cost of £4 million
The bill for spiralling sickness rates in the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service topped £14 million over the last three years, it can be revealed.
Staff were absent from work for more than 32,000 days in the 12 months to April - a rise of 15% on 2013/14.
Back and musculoskeletal problems and other related injuries accounted for more than a quarter of the absences, latest figures show.
In the last year, a total of 32,068 days were lost to sickness absences, costing £3,989,918. The number of days lost increased from the 27,690 recorded in the 12 months to April 2014.
In 2013/2014 the cost was £4,416,168, and in 2014/2015, it was £3,981,168.
This year alone, from April to August, 12,429 days were lost at a cost of £1,636,805.
In October the Belfast Telegraph reported how nearly 7,000 days - a fifth of the overall absence figures - were down to stress, depression and anxiety, with overstretched ambulance workers facing "burnout".
A total of 6,845 days were lost in 2015/16 due to these factors, a massive jump from 2,462 in 2011/12. John McPoland from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said measures were in place to address the problem.
"NIAS takes seriously its responsibilities in relation to the health and well-being of our staff, particularly as we are aware of the stressful environments in which our front line and support staff operate," he said.
The top five reasons for absence were:
- Injury, fracture, back problems and other musculoskeletal problems - 27.15%.
- Mental health issues - 23.52%.
- Miscellaneous (including issues like chronic fatigue, general debility and hospital investigations) - 19.14%.
- Accident/untoward incident at work - 10.63%.
- Gastrointestinal problems - 5.65%.
Ulster Unionist Party health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson said the figures showed ambulance staff had now become "demonised and drained".
"These figures show the extreme stresses which our dedicated Ambulance Service staff are working under," she said.
"The Executive must get real with workforce planning and put measures in place to support the staff as a priority. Continually consulting, reviewing and considering achieves little - these figures should be ringing alarm bells within the health service that action is needed today.
"As a first step, the Health Minister must review workforce planning within the Ambulance Service, setting measurable target-driven goals to support front line and support staff who are demonised and drained.
"You cannot stretch an already overstretched service to its limits and not expect to have consequences."
Mr McPoland said although current absence levels accounted for 10.43% of planned hours, "the trust was on track to meet its 2016/17 target of 9.91%".
Initiatives include fast-track access for all staff to physiotherapy services, establishment of a health and well-being group which includes staff representatives, and access to Carecall counselling services.
He added: "The trust is undertaking a review of its attendance management procedure and associated policies/procedures to ensure that we support staff during absence and to prepare them for a manageable return to work."
Speaking in October, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said she had tasked officials to give greater support to ambulance workers.
"Ambulance Service employees have significantly demanding roles, both emotionally and physically. It is therefore no surprise that these members of staff exhibit higher levels of sickness absence than other sectors," she said at the time.
She added: "I will be challenging my officials, in partnership with service management and trade union side colleagues, to work in partnership to manage absences through manager training, early referrals to occupational health service, stress management training and resilience training."