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Revealed: Shocking civil service sickness levels on the rise - which department has highest absence?

Which Stormont department had the highest level of civil servant absence due to sickness?

By Claire Williamson

Published 22/09/2016

The Department of Justice had the most absence due to sickness with 15.9 days in 2015/16.
The Department of Justice had the most absence due to sickness with 15.9 days in 2015/16.

More than one in 10 civil servants had at least one absence spell lasting an average of almost three months, new figures have shown.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) published the figures for 2015/16 in their sickness absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service report.

It shows trends of the past five years which highlights that the amount of absence due to sickness in the civil service is continuing to rise.

The average worker took 11.7 days off last year - an increase from 10.8 days in the previous year and short of the annual target of 8.5 days.

Those 11.7 days lost represented 5.3% of the available working days in 2015/2016 and in salary terms equal an estimated £32.7million of lost production.

The department of social development made the biggest contribution to the overall increase in absence level for 2015/2016 accounting for almost two thirds of the rise.  

While the level of absence ranged from 7.3 days for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to 15.9 days for the Department of Justice.

The report found that while half of staff had no recorded absence, more than one in ten had at least one long-term absence spell lasting an average of nearly three months.

This was the highest incidence of long-term absence in the past five years and accounted for nearly three quarters of all working days lost.

The main reason for absence, as in previous years,  was anxiety, stress, depression, other psychiatric illness which accounted for one out of every three days lost.

Just under one third of the working days lost in this illness category were recorded as work-related stress.

The absence level of females (13.5 days) remained higher than that for males (10 days).

Almost two thirds of this difference was due to "gender-specific absences," the report said.


Ulster Unionist finance spokesman Philip Smith MLA said the Executive must "get to grips" with the levels of sickness absence.

He said: "The Northern Ireland Executive has consistently failed to meet targets in relation to reducing the number of lost days, and as a result absence rates remain significantly higher here than the Civil Service in Great Britain.

"There have been several major investigations undertaken into why our rates of sickness absence are so comparatively high, including by the last Finance and Personnel Committee at Stormont, yet another year has passed with no progress at all being achieved.

"The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) previously estimated that the average annual cost of absence across the UK was £554 per employee, yet in the Northern Ireland Civil Service these latest figures suggest it is £1,300 per employee – more than double the UK average.    

“Instead of the problem easing, it’s deteriorating.  I will be seeking answers whether the rapid rollout of the Voluntary Exit Scheme contributed to these increased levels of absence.  It now appears a real possibility that the chaotic rollout of the VES, in which thousands of staff left the NICS in a totally uncoordinated manner, may have destabilised the ability of those left behind to continue the same functions as effectively.

“Long-term absence in the NICS, particularly due to mental ill-health reasons, is now a key area requiring attention. It is absolutely imperative that as an employer the Northern Ireland Civil Service is able to support the mental wellbeing of its workers, but also quickly facilitate their return to work when possible."

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