Absences among civil servants cost more than £38m in the last financial year, according to a new report.
The report by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) shows that, on average, each staff member was absent for 12.2 days in 2021/22 — an increase from the previous year’s figure of 9.8 days.
Looking at all available working days for the year, the 12.2 days lost per staff member represented 5.6% of available working days, compared to 4.4% in 2020/21. In salary terms, this equates to around £38.6m in lost production — up £10.2m year-on-year — and works out at 3.7% of the Civil Service’s entire wage bill.
“All three main measures of sickness absence — working days lost per staff year, the percentage of available working days lost, and estimated production — were higher than last year, returning to levels similar to those recorded prior to the Covid-19 pandemic,” the report states.
The most common reason for absences was due to anxiety, depression and other psychiatric illnesses, which accounted for 39.8% of absences, followed by chest and respiratory ilnesses which accounted for 13.8% of working days lost. Almost two-thirds of staff recorded no sickness absences in 2021/22.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) employs more than 23,000 full-time staff across a range of departments and the level of absences across these departments varies. In the Department of Education, for instance, an average of 8.5 days were lost per staff member, compared to 18.5 days in the Department of Justice. All of the departments recorded higher absence levels in 2021/22 compared to 2020/2021.
Women within the NICS had a higher absence level than men (13.3 days lost compared to 11.2), the report found, while staff who had been in post for under two years had a much lower level of sickness absence (4.6 days) than staff who had been employed for two years or more (13.0 days).
The report states: “The lower level of sickness absence among new staff was a likely consequence of the one-year probationary period each staff member undergoes immediately after joining NICS.”
“The probation regime includes more stringent conditions concerning the management of sickness absence compared to those not in probation. For probationary staff, each absence spell leads to a review and the consideration of potential inefficiency action.”
Some 12.7% had at least one period of long-term absence, lasting around three months on average, representing 80.5% of all working days lost. Covid-19 accounted for 1.42 working days lost per staff member in 2021/22, representing 11.7% of all NICS sickness absence days.
The Belfast Telegraph revealed in October of last year that almost 1.3m working days in the Northern Ireland Civil Service were lost to absenteeism in the previous five years.