We must get to root of high Civil Service sickness rate
The amount of sickness leave accrued by civil servants in Northern Ireland will raise many eyebrows. At more than two weeks a year, it reached its highest point for a decade during the last year.
That figure, it has to be remembered, was due to absences among only half the staff - the other half did not take any sick leave. The resulting additional work which they had to handle will not have endeared their absent colleagues to them.
Staggeringly, the statistics reveal that one in eight civil servants were on sick leave for at least three months. That is a figure which would astound employers in the private sector.
The failure of the report into absenteeism to demonstrate why there has been a surge in sick leave is a major weakness. We know the principal causes are anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses but we have no indication of how civil service management attempted to verify all illnesses or deal with the root causes of them.
As expected, a trade union spokesman has given a stout defence of the workforce and blamed management for failing to work with the union to tackle the problem.
The spokesman cites the cap on public pay, the reduction in the workforce by 3,000 and reductions on employees' terms and conditions as contributing factors in the spiralling sick leave.
However, his argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that half the workforce does not appear to have been affected by these factors, which are common throughout the civil service.
And those who work in the private sector will say the lack of job security, pay freezes and reduced workforces put the same strains on them without, apparently, having the same results.
There is merit in the call for the Audit Office to investigate the level of sick leave in the civil service. After all, these are people who provide vital public services and who are paid out of the public purse. If their working conditions are contributing to their ill-health that is something which needs to be established and a counter-measures put in place.
If, however, the level of sick leave is due to a lack of robust measures to ensure the system is not abused, then that is equally vital information to obtain.
The Civil Service is a huge part of the Northern Ireland economy and it is important that it functions as effectively and efficiently as possible.