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Civil Service's treatment of mental illness exposes a dereliction of duty when it should be showing leadership

Doug Beattie


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Positive action: the announcement that a mental health champion is being appointed is good news for those in stressful roles, like prison officers

Positive action: the announcement that a mental health champion is being appointed is good news for those in stressful roles, like prison officers

Positive action: the announcement that a mental health champion is being appointed is good news for those in stressful roles, like prison officers

The news that the Health Minister, Robin Swann, is to appoint a mental health champion is extremely welcome and not before time. The position was first proposed by the Ulster Unionist Party nearly five years ago and was greeted with scorn by the-then health minister, who said she was the health champion. If that was the case, she failed spectacularly.

Not only has the mental health of Northern Ireland got worse, but we have managed to produce policies within the Northern Ireland Civil Service that discriminate against those suffering mental health illness.

Recently, I have been working with a member of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Having gone sick with stress, he was subsequently diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This individual fought this debilitating mental health illness in order to return to work, which he did, and has now resumed his place as a valued member of the workforce.

Reading this, you would rightly say well done to that individual, having fought to get back to work while still suffering from a mental health illness. However, that is not how the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) human resources unit sees it.

Having returned to work, the individual was subject to a return-to-work interview. The interviewer accepted he had PTSD and also accepted that he did all he could to get back to work as early as possible.

Yet, having taken that into account, the individual was issued with a written warning as part of the NICS "inefficiency absence policy". Like many others, I find this a truly incredible outcome.

I do wonder if the individual had had cancer, or Covid-19, would he have been subject to a written warning? Indeed, if he had broken a limb, would the outcome be the same? Or is the written warning being used deliberately to stop those with mental illness going off sick?

Due to my concerns, I engaged with both the director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and with the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long.

Their initial responses were that it was for the NICS's human resources unit to decide on written warnings.

I regard this as a genuine dereliction of duty and leadership towards the very workforce you are supposed to be responsible for. It showed a complete misunderstanding of the moral component and functions of leadership.

Having been told to go elsewhere, I then engaged with the head of the Civil Service, the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and the director and head of employee relations within the NICS.

None gave me a satisfactory answer and none were able to get to the core of the issue.

This was not just about an individual; this was about written warnings being used as a management tool to target those in the civil service who suffer mental health illness.

The written answers I received from the human resources unit clearly stated that they use the written warning if any department could not "sustain that level of absence".

That puts those in the most stressful roles, such as the Prison Service, at an immediate disadvantage to those with a less stressful role elsewhere in the Civil Service.

I have now, as a last resort, written to the Minister of Finance, Conor Murphy, whose department is responsible for the NICS. I say "as a last resort", not because I disagree with his politics, but I have tried to raise this issue on a multitude of platforms with a variety of individuals and received perfunctory answers. Therefore, this issue must now be raised by the minister responsible and that is the minister of finance.

If we are serious about dealing with mental health issues, then we need to start at the top, with ministers taking issue with existing policies.

I'm in no doubt that a mental health champion will help and will be able to bring a focus on issues like this. But it is hugely worrying that those who see themselves as our workforce leaders have not already taken issue with such a policy.

Doug Beattie MC is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann

Belfast Telegraph