Belfast Telegraph

Management pressure on staff is root cause of Civil Service sickness rate

By Bumper Graham

Each year data is published on Civil Service sickness absence. This is not a report, as a report would seek to provide qualitative analysis as to what lies underneath the data.

The real issue is not the data, but the failure of Civil Service management to agree to work with the trade unions to address the causes of illness and absenteeism.

Following last year's figures Nipsa wrote to senior management expressing concern that the pattern of increasing absence due to anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses was continuing and Nipsa sought to engage jointly to see what could be done.

The response was totally dismissive of a joint initiative and stated that all that could be done was being done.

This year's figures confirm that mental health issues in the workplace are the greatest problem, accounting for 55% of the increase in absence over the previous year.

This does not surprise Nipsa or its members and if management would express the truth then they too would have to acknowledge this. The real issue is why and what is the cause - and the answer is undue pressure.

With over 3,000 Civil Service jobs having been lost due to redundancy and the folly of the Executive borrowing hundreds of millions to put people out of work, those remaining have had to do their own jobs and that of the 3,000 who went out the door.

In addition civil servants continue to see daily assaults on their terms and conditions, real cuts in their pay after seven years of either no pay increases or the 1% public sector pay cap, and a total lack of political leadership at Stormont and an anti-civil servant Government in Westminster.

At the same time massive change looms in how civil servants work, including welfare reform, Brexit implications and further privatisation threats, including shared services.

Nipsa believes that should the management side agree to work jointly, then firstly a full assessment could be conducted of what lies behind the crude data.

More importantly, that should lead to real considerations as to how to improve the situation, including proper mental health risk assessments both for individuals and groups of workers, especially those facing changes to how they work.

The Executive should help, should it be reformed, by breaking away from all Treasury controls and providing for a properly-resourced Civil Service that values and recognises its employees. Other issues needed to be put into context such as the higher proportion of women in the Civil Service and the corresponding impact that has on gender-specific illnesses.

If the position is to improve the Civil Service, the management position of being interested only in attainment of arbitrary targets for illness absenteeism has to change.

A joint approach to dealing with the cause - wholly inadequate resources and too much pressure - could help in improving matters and hence providing a workplace that delivers essential public services while caring for and valuing civil servants.

Bumper Graham is deputy general secretary of Nipsa

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