Sickness absence has cost the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) more than £3 million annually for the last three years, a report said.
A significant number of prison staff suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a review ordered by the justice minister said, yet some support services were relatively under-used.
Some older staff held concerns about speaking out about mental health.
During the year to March 2020, 988 absences were recorded.
The report said: “There is also the clear issue of the current direct cost to NIPS of sickness absence being in excess of £3 million per year for the last three years (this does not include the cost of backfill for sickness absence).
Minister Long has confirmed her commitment to delivering a menu of measures to enhance support for serving & retired @NIPrisons staff.— Justice NI (@Justice_NI) January 25, 2021
Today 2 reports have been published following a review which was commissioned by Minister Long.
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“The days lost to sickness absence should significantly reduce if much earlier interventions are made and the investment is made at the front end of the process.
“A short-term investment for longer-term gain must be considered.”
A total of 197 staff suffered stress-related absences during the financial year to March 2020.
The largest number of cases involved non-work related stress, followed by stress in the workplace.
Some support services are relatively under-used.
The report noted issues about raising concerns about one’s own mental health. It said those longer in service found it harder to speak out than newer recruits.
I share the view that the lack of bespoke support available for former prison officers, when compared to that available to former members of the police through the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust, is a glaring omissionJustice Minister Naomi Long
It added that mental health issues were not treated in the same way as physical injuries and raised concern over the issuing of warnings to staff off sick which used the expression “inefficiency”.
The report said the expenditure in the support of mental health provision for staff in NIPS is low given that the opening budget for the service in 2020/21 is £105,995,000, and the staffing budget is £74.123 million.
It added: “It has been confirmed however, that, the scope within current NIPS budget provision is extremely limited.”
The report said the notable rise in numbers being medically retired and the associated cost should be read in the context that this level of spend could be channelled, and hopefully decreased, with early interventions for serving NIPS staff.
Justice Minister Naomi Long said she was committed to delivering measures to enhance support for serving and retired prison staff.
She commissioned the review to ascertain if there is more that could or should be done to help frontline staff.
She said it was hard to disagree with any of the recommendations in any of the two resulting reports.
“I share the view that the lack of bespoke support available for former prison officers, when compared to that available to former members of the police through the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust, is a glaring omission.
“This is something that must and will be addressed.
“However, we should not underestimate the scale of the challenge we will face in addressing the needs of former staff and it will take considerable time to do so.”