Figures reveal 370 staff were absent last year because of pressures during Covid crisis
A four-day working week has been suggested after new figures showed hundreds of civil servants at Stormont have been struggling with work-related stress throughout the Covid emergency.
Figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph show that there were 370 absences due to the problem last year. They also record 1,464 absences listed under 'anxiety, stress, depression or any other psychiatric illness'.
Across Stormont's nine departments and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), there are almost 23,000 workers.
Of the 370 work-related stress absences last year, Stormont's largest department, the Department for Communities (DfC), had the highest number of absences at 113. DfC was followed by the Department of Justice (DoJ) at 95 and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) at 53.
The PPS had 'less than 10' due to work-related stress, while the Department of Education (DoE) had five.
Alliance Party health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said her party has been calling for Stormont's mental health strategy to be brought forward "more swiftly than is currently the case".
"Not least so we have a clear policy framework for dealing with issues such as anxiety and depression among the workforce. It is our view the pandemic only makes this more urgent, not less so," she added.
"Such a strategy should be not just about services, but also about what we can all do to support each other."
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, a member of Stormont's Health Committee, said the Executive needs to examine new ways of addressing workplace stress.
"The scale of these figures is very worrying and really goes to show the pressure and stress that frontline workers are under," he said.
"Not only do we need to ensure that every worker is supported with access to counselling and other talking therapies but these figures should really focus the attention of Executive ministers on tackling long hours for low pay that many unfortunately face.
"I would urge ministers to urgently look at the benefits of implementing a four-day week without loss of pay as a way to assist tackling anxiety, depression and other mental health pressures people are experiencing."
The Department of Finance, which is responsible for personnel matters in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), said: "The health, wellbeing and welfare of all our colleagues is very important and we offer a range of support including a welfare support service; access to a free, 24-hour counselling service; access to a health and wellbeing support hub; and mental health awareness training for staff and managers.
"Arrangements are in place to quickly identify colleagues experiencing stress and to offer support including dignity at work/mediation services.
"In many cases there is an immediate referral to our Occupational Health Service and trained welfare officers will make contact to offer support and to signpost colleagues to specialised support if this is required."
This week the Belfast Telegraph reported that around 16% of all Civil Service workers on the Hill were self-isolating during the pandemic. Figures show that there were 3,603 cases of staff absences due to self-isolation from February 2020 to March 2021.