Belfast Telegraph

Call to probe 'phenomenal' scale of Civil Service sickness in Northern Ireland

By Cate McCurry

Auditors have been urged to investigate spiralling sickness levels within the Civil Service after it reached its highest point in a decade.

The average worker in the public sector is annually missing more than a fortnight at work, according to new figures. A report by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) shows staff took an average of 12.4 days off in 2016/2017 - an increase from 11.7 days the previous year.

Based on a five-day working week, this was two-and-a-half weeks off.

It represents an estimated £32.7m of lost production - equivalent to around 3.8% of the total Civil Service pay bill.

Civil Service absenteeism is at its highest level since 2007/08, when an average of 12.9 days a year were lost.

TUV leader Jim Allister called for the Audit Office to investigate what he described as the "phenomenal" scale of sickness.

He also said that measures put in place by the Department of Finance to reduce sickness levels "are not working".

"This absence is something the Audit Office should look at and I would have also thought they would be looking at the measures that the Department of Finance has taken to assess and evaluate their adequacy," he said.

"I think it's very disturbing to see the trend going the wrong direction.

"I think the scale of absenteeism is phenomenal, and when compared to the private sector it's totally out of control.

"If you are self-employed or in the private sector it's a very different picture and I don't think it's because people in the public sector are less healthy, so there has to be other reasons. I am disappointed that the promises from the department that they would be putting in place robust measures to address this issue haven't materialised, otherwise the figures would be different.

"It's a huge strain on the public purse because you are paying people to take over two weeks a year sick leave."

The report also shows just under half of staff had no recorded absence in 2016/2017, though approximately one in every eight staff had at least one spell of long-term absence lasting around three months on average.

Anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses accounted for the greatest proportion of working days lost. Work-related stress accounted for one-third of the days.

Absence levels among women remain higher than for men, although over half of this was due to gender-specific conditions.

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said it was a "worrying situation".

"Answers are needed as to why sickness absence is so much more of a problem here compared to the rest of the UK," he said.

"This is coming at a major financial cost to the public purse and just at a time when the rest of the NI Civil Service is under growing pressure to maintain public services.

"Of course there are many civil servants that are rarely absent at all, so increasing absence rates from their colleagues will simply unfairly add to their workload.

"An increasing proportion of absences are caused by stress or other mental health concerns.

"We need to make sure that when people do speak out they get the right help and support at the right time."

A spokesman for public service union Nipsa said full responsibility was "at the door of NICS management".

"Management continue to make cuts, attack terms and conditions, change how people work and pile on more pressure whilst totally failing to address the route cause of the problem," he said. "Each year a report is issued that is based on data only and not informed by the true reasons that lie behind the data.

"NICS management do not comment on the report, as they know only too well that they carry the responsibility for a workplace that fails to properly assess the problems and fails to protect staff from harm caused by applying continuous additional pressure on staff with less resources."

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