Civil service hit by 1.3 million sick days … and report reveals “some signs of improvement”

Almost 1,300,000 days of civil service work have been lost due to absenteeism over the past five years, according to figures.

concerns about the absence rates of civil servants have been on the rise for some time.

Last year, an audit office report found that ‘consistently high levels’ of sick leave within the organization had cost £ 169million since 2015.

However, last year, when working from home was introduced due to the pandemic, absenteeism plummeted.

According to figures from the Department of Finance (DoF), which manages personnel matters for the Public Service of Northern Ireland (NICS), an average of 9.8 working days were lost in fiscal year 2020/21 for each staff member, up from a high level out of 13 in 2017/18.

This represents an average of 4.4% of available working days lost last year, compared to an average of six in 2017/18.

In 2020/21, a total of 207,160 days were lost due to sick leave, up from 272,797 in 2019/20.

Over the past five years, a total of 1,298,745 days have been lost due to sick leave in NICS.

The figures were released by Finance Minister Conor Murphy after a question to the Assembly from independent trade union member Claire Sugden.

Ulster Union MP Steve Aiken, chairman of Stormont’s finance committee, said the situation needed to be addressed.

“The still high levels of absenteeism remain very worrying,” he added.

“Even though levels have fallen during the Covid pandemic, NICS senior management needs to urgently address these issues.

“We look forward to hearing from the new head of the civil service explain how she plans to tackle this problem.”

Last year’s report found that absences from NICS increased by 10% over the previous five years. The rate was almost double the level seen in England.

Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said, “High sickness absence rates in the public sector are not a new phenomenon. However, this report finds few signs of sustained improvement.

“It is time for public sector organizations to make a concerted effort to reduce the level of sickness absence and to develop a cohesive approach to attendance management. With this in mind, the local government auditor and I have identified a number of key principles in attendance management that should be applied throughout central and local government.

“A strong culture of presence needs to be embedded across the public sector in Northern Ireland and driven from above.

“We recommend that organizations focus on targeting long-term absences through preventative measures and early intervention.

“It is also vital for all organizations to measure and analyze sickness absence levels if they are to understand their impact, not only in terms of costs, but also on the quality of service provided to the public.

Earlier this year, Stormont’s public accounts committee called for sweeping public service reform to make it fit for purpose.

As the pandemic saw a drop in absences, the Belfast Telegraph revealed in April this year that around one in seven managerial positions in the NICS were vacant, leading to calls for the staff situation in the organization is reviewed.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance said: “While the level of sick leave in the public service has declined over the past year, we continue to look at absenteeism and see how the trend is decline can be maintained. Policies in place to manage sick leave include promoting good mental and physical health and supporting staff returning to work after sick leave.

“We are working together with unions and our Employee Advisory, Occupational Welfare and Health teams to help colleagues stay on the job and return to work as soon as they can.”

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