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'Unacceptably high' Northern Ireland Civil Service sickness absences cost £36m last year, figures show

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Tens of millions are lost each year due to sickness absences in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (PA)

Tens of millions are lost each year due to sickness absences in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (PA)

Tens of millions are lost each year due to sickness absences in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (PA)

More than £36 million in workplace production was lost last year due to sickness absences in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), it has emerged.

New figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show that, in the 2019/20 financial year, 5.9% of all available working days were lost due to absences - equating to around £36.6m in lost production in salary terms.

On average, each NICS staff member was absent a total of 12.9 days - a slight increase from 12.6 days the previous year. The NICS employs just over 21,000 workers.

More than half (50.7%) of all staff, however, missed no days last year due to illness, while 64.0% of absence spells lasted five working days or less.

Compared with the private sector, NICS absence levels are much higher, with the average private sector worker losing an average of 4.3 days due to illness.

Staff who have served less than two years with the NICS also recorded lower sickness absence rates than those who had served longer - 6.1 days and 13.3 days.

TUV leader Jim Allister said sick leave is "unacceptably high" in the NICS.

“Among the plethora of statistics two strike me most. One, how sick levels among probationers is substantially lower - suggesting the stricter sick leave regime operated for probationers works," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Two, the contrast with the private sector again suggests a different culture at play in the public sector.”

Anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses accounted for the most absences (37.4%) and, within this category, work-related stress accounting for around a third of the days lost.

Looking at absences across each Stormont department, the Department of Justice (DoJ) had the highest sickness absence rate with an average of 15.5 days lost, while the Executive Office had the least at 9.3 days.

A DoJ spokesperson said: “The Department of Justice continues to take a proactive approach to the management of sickness absence including application of NI Civil Service policies and procedures such as written warnings, dismissals and ill health retirements where appropriate.

"A high priority is placed on the health and wellbeing of staff and a range of support services are provided. The vast majority of DOJ staff operate in front line roles, which creates particular pressures.”

The figures, covering the 12 months to the end of March this year, also show that Covid-19 accounted for 0.9% of all NICS sickness absences. These absences occurred between January and March.

Looking at gender, women had a higher rate of sickness absence than men, with an average of 11 days and 15.1 days lost, respectively.

The largest cause of this disparity was pregancy-related illness and, when this is excluded, the absence level for females dropped to 14.2 days.

Some 13.3% of staff had at least one long-term period of absence, with all long-term absences making up 77% of the total amount of working days lost. The average long-term absence was 62.8 working days.

The Department of Finance handles civil service personnel. A spokesperson acknowledged that the NICS "has more work to do" in addressing sickness absences across departments.

"The sickness absence reasons highlighted by the report, particularly in relation to absence due to anxiety, stress, depression and psychiatric illness, reflect the prevalence of mental health issues across society," they added.

"Arrangements are in place within the civil service to quickly identify staff experiencing stress and offer support. In many cases there is an immediate referral to the Occupational Health Service and trained Welfare Officers will make contact to offer support and signpost staff to more specialised support if this is required.

"The NICS offers a comprehensive range of interventions to help and support staff including; a welfare support service, access to a free, 24 hour counselling service for staff and their families as well as well-being and mental health awareness training for staff and managers."

Belfast Telegraph