Unions sound alarm over rise in Northern Ireland civil service sick days

Written by Jim Dunton on 22 September 2017 in News
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Long-term mental health problems against a backdrop of staff cuts drives Northern Ireland staff absences trend

 

Credit: Ryan Melaugh / Flickr

Increased incidences of long-term mental health problems are driving a 6% rise in the number of sick days taken by civil servants in Northern Ireland, new figures show.

An annual update produced for the Northern Ireland Civil Service – a separate entity to its mainland counterpart – found and average of 12.4 working days a year were lost due to sickness among staff in 2016-17, up from 11.7 the previous year.

The report said that more than one-third of the total days lost over the year were due to anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illness – and that mental health related problems were responsible for more than half of the year-on-year increase.

Both the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance and the FDA unions pointed out that the trend followed deep staffing cuts within the service, and called on NICS leaders to do more to support the workers who remain.


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While the actual number of working days lost due to sickness in the NICS decreased year-on-year, the number of staff also decreased significantly, with 3,000 full and part-time workers taking advantage of voluntary exit schemes to leave the service. NICS Recruitment says the service currently employs more than 23,000 permanent staff. 

The past six months have also seen the collapse of a power-sharing executive between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, resulting in officials stepping in to fill the power vacuum.

NIPSA deputy general secretary Bumper Graham drew a direct link between headcount reductions within the civil service and the rise in mental health problems among staff, and accused senior managers of failing to acknowledge the problem.

“Each year the NI Statistics Agency is allowed to issue a report that is based on data only and not informed by the true reasons that lie behind the data,” he said. 

“NICS management do not comment on the report, as they know only too well that they carry the responsibility for a workplace that fails to properly assess the problems and fails to protect staff from the harm caused by applying continuous additional pressure on staff with less resources. 

“It is time for NICS management to properly engage with the trade union to improve the working environment.”

FDA assistant general secretary Rob O’Neill said UK ministers and senior managers should be worried by the latest report. 

“It is clear that existing policies and initiatives to reduce sickness absence levels in the NICS are not working and these figures must be seen in the context of a 20% reduction in staff over recent years – without any commensurate reduction in workload,” he said.

“The FDA is calling for the replacement of the punitive NICS attendance management policy, which clearly is not working, with a more effective and balanced system that emphasises supporting and encouraging staff back to work.”

The latest figure for average staff days lost to sickness among NICS employees is the highest for five years, and the data also shows that 2016-17 marks the first time over that period that the number of staff recording no sickness absence fell below 50%.

NICS lost a total of 270,948 work days due to staff sickness in 2016-17, down from 277,855 in 2015-16. The total was the lowest for three years. Seventy-six percent of the sick days reported were part of long-term absences.

Departmentally, staff at the Executive Office took the lowest number of sick days, notching up an average of 7.9 during the year. Department of Justice workers had the highest average – with 15.9, however the DoJ was the only department to register a year-on-year decrease. Its 2015-16 average was 15.9.

By job type, prison grade staff took the highest number of sick days on average, with 19.6 – but the figure was down from 23.8 last year and 20.4 in 2014-15.

According to the figures, staff at Grade 5 and above registered a 52% increase in average sick days, rising from 2.7 in 2015-16 to 4.1 last year. 

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