Third of Civil Service sick leave caused by stress and depression
Anxiety, stress and depression causes almost a third of sickness absence in the civil service, an Assembly committee has found.
The finding has led to calls for a robust investigation into the reasons why "mental ill-health" is behind so much leave.
Committee chair, Sinn Fein's Daithi McKay, said: "While we might expect that some public-sector roles, such as paramedics, firefighters and social security advisers, are more stressful than others, the reasons why mental ill-health is such a significant cause of absence needs to be thoroughly researched to identify and tailor solutions at a local level."
The committee found that sickness absence levels in the NI civil service continue to be higher than in its counterpart in Britain - and that Northern Ireland has "persistently failed" to achieve overall sickness absence reduction targets in recent years.
It said this represented "a missed opportunity to realise significant savings for the public purse". The report by the committee which monitors Finance Minister Simon Hamilton's department said: "While the majority of civil servants record no sickness absence, long-term absence, particularly due to mental ill-health reasons, has been identified as a key area for attention."
Mr McKay warned there had been a consistent failure to meet overall sickness targets.
"For example, in 2013-14, the actual average number of days per staff lost due to sickness absence in the civil service was 10.1, set against a target of nine," he said.
"Our review has found that, while there was previously a downward trend in absence rates in local civil service departments, in recent years there has been a consistent failure across the board in terms of meeting overall targets, with absence rates here remaining higher than the civil service in Britain.
"While we were encouraged to learn that the percentage of civil servants with no recorded sickness absence throughout the year increased to more than 55% in 2013-14, long-term absence, especially due to mental ill-health, remains a major concern."
The committee has identified that if local public sector sickness absences are brought into line with those of their equivalents in Britain, savings of approximately £37m per year could be made.
"There can be no doubt that good practice policies on preventing and managing sickness absence do already exist here.
"However, the committee feels that these need to be applied much more rigorously and consistently across all government departments and the wider public sector," the report said.
The committee report recommended the "systematic adoption" of early intervention measures and the roll-out of pilot health and wellbeing schemes, which "have already demonstrated elsewhere the potential to contribute to reducing absence rates". Mr Hamilton said: "Although sickness absence is a problem, over 55% of civil servants in the most recent year took no sickness absence.
"That is not just one year: it is habitually the case that over half, or a majority, take no sickness absence at all.
"The figure of £37m, which relates to the savings in the entire public sector if we were to take sickness absence down to the UK level, has been put out there by the committee in its report.
"Whilst that would not realise £37m in additional cash, it would be in additional productivity."
Surprise as more than 7,000 apply for exit scheme
More than 7,000 civil servants have applied for Stormont's 'exit' scheme to shed 20,000 public sector jobs.
The total is three times greater than the initial estimate of 2,400 which had been anticipated.
And the 7,200 figure represents only the first tranche, since the scheme has not yet been opened to health and education staff.
It indicates the overall initiative is likely to be over-subscribed.
But questions are being asked about whether Executive Ministers will be given access to loans to finance the scheme, which in turn would plunge the entire Stormont Budget into crisis.
As part of the Stormont House Agreement, there was a public-sector transformation fund allowing access to some £700m - £200m in each of the first three years and £100m in the final year - to help fund the voluntary exit scheme. But that money could be withdrawn if welfare reforms are not implemented.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who is overseeing the exit scheme, expects around a third of the 7,285 applications could be withdrawn if applicants don't get offered the severance package they want.
"We will not know the number of staff exiting via the scheme until selection has taken place and those selected confirm whether they wish to accept the offer," he told MLAs.
Stormont chiefs have stayed silent about the total over recent weeks since the first application date closed on March 27.
And trade unions were asked not to make the figures public.