More than a quarter of civil service sick days due to mental ill health

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 15 January 2018 in News

Cabinet Office records fall in civil service sickness absence but high proportion of sick days due to mental ill health

The Cabinet Office said 25.8% of sick days were due to mental ill health last year. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA 

More than a quarter of civil service sick days were due to mental ill health last year, a parliamentary written answer has revealed.

Oliver Dowden, who was appointed parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office last week, said 25.8% of absences in the year to March 2017 were related to mental ill health, while 64.9% were down to physical illness.

This is more than double the national average, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that 15.8m days were lost in the UK labour market due to mental health issues including stress, depression and anxiety in 2016, the last year for which figures are available. That’s 11.5% of the total number of lost working days due to sickness or injury.

In response to a parliamentary question asked by Labour shadow minister for the Cabinet Office Jon Trickett, Dowden said the civil service continually reviewed its support for staff, and was exploring how to measure presenteeism through its annual People Survey following concerns that a fall in the number of civil service sick days could be indicative of a culture of presenteeism.


Dowden said: “The civil service recognises that good workforce health and wellbeing is fundamental to delivering brilliant public services. We support people so that they can remain at work where possible and to return as soon as they are ready following sickness absence.”

He added that the civil service regularly reviews how it manages sickness absence and supports staff health and wellbeing at work to ensure they consistently deliver a high level of service for the public. 

In October, the civil service signed up to a package of measures aimed at improving mental health support in departments, following the publication of a government-commissioned report that found that mental health problems cost UK businesses up to £42bn a year in lost productivity.

Cabinet Office statistics show that the average number of sick days taken by civil servants has reduced from just under 10 days in 2007 to seven days for the year to March 2017, the lowest ever recorded level. 

Trickett also asked what assessment the Cabinet Office had made of why there has been a reduction in sick days, and whether the trend showed a “potential culture of presenteeism”.

Dowden said the reduction demonstrated the significant progress made in reducing sickness absence across the civil service.

“Departments continue to monitor their sickness absence data, in order to take continuing action to improve management of absences and prevention of absence, including through supporting workforce health and wellbeing,” he added. 

“While no formal civil service wide assessment has been made of the reasons behind the reductions, this continuing attention and action is a key contributor.

“As for all employers, presenteeism is potentially an issue in the civil service. We have made no assessment of the effect of a potential culture of presenteeism on the long term trend in sickness absence. However we are exploring how to measure presenteeism using the Civil Service People Survey, and this might inform such an assessment in the future.”

Trickett told Civil Service World: “Austerity may be having a very real effect on the mental health of civil servants. From job centres to Whitehall, they’re overstretched and under-resourced.

“It’s good to talk about mental health, but the Tories must consider what concrete actions they can have to take to reduce stress in the workplace.”

In a series of separate parliamentary questions, Liberal Democrat shadow first secretary of state Tom Brake asked the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office how many sick days had been taken in the past year due to stress.

Sir Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister, said stress was recorded as the reason for sickness absence in 9.5% of the total number of cases between January and December 2017.

DfID recorded that 17.6% of its total sick absence was declared as being down to reasons of stress, anxiety and/or depression in 2017, according to Harriett Baldwin, a joint FCO/DfID minister.

A poll by mental health charity Mind last year found that public sector workers took three times as many sick days due to poor mental health than their private sector counterparts.

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Tamsin Rutter
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Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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MISS HOUSEN (not verified)

Submitted on 16 January, 2018 - 15:37
the experience of many civil servants is that we are constantly fire fighting bad decisions and mistakes of higher management, who seem to not understand how the department works in reality, mental health is pushed aside in favour of work targets and disability adjustments are often avoided or ignored - even when appeals and grievances are put in - many management have no experience or training in doing grievances and appeals and often look for the policy that supports the answer they want or higher management want - without looking at the whole policy or law and often ignore law around the equality act with no comeback on the wrong decisions - mental health at the lower end of management is not taken seriously and often mocked as if the people are putting it on - often with the attitude of put yourself together - harassment and bullying increases every year - over the last years has been over 10% and it shows in the mental health and physical manifestations - toolkits do not work and have been used as a way to combat harassment and bullying, but grievances and appeals need to be looked at in detail in each office and area to get a real picture of how management are causing this and not following civil service codes of decision making and fairness

Laura Henderson (not verified)

Submitted on 17 January, 2018 - 15:44
Glad the folk at the top are beginning to acknowledge the scale of the MH problem. Junior Grades are barely surviving on their shrunken wage packets coupled with battling ever expanding work demands. The SAM policy only excaberates the stress cycle. How can anyone preserve their last remnants of sanity as they try to 'force' themselves to stay at work or get back to work when they are not well - and all because they're trying to avoid being disciplined on account of SAM policy absence triggers? The system should support workers - not work against them when it suits HR to offload people who are at a precarious and very vulnerable time in their lives. These people, have either given decades of loyal service or potentially could give decades more - if they are given the proper support from the system; rather than cut down before the natural end of their working lives.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 17 January, 2018 - 17:07
Interesting article. Surprising though that there aren't more comments. Certainly many mental health survivors in HMRC have their own stories to tell about the mismanagement and bullying culture. Maybe HMRC do not allow CSW to publish comments, what with their draconian North Korea-style censorship rules to stop the truth slipping out? With regard to the mental health stock image with a woman with her head in her hands - come on CSW, why use such a stereotypical image in this day & age?

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 18 January, 2018 - 08:14
The now standard practice of penalizing those who are sick and attempts to reduce the amount of sick that a worker can take before being penalized for being ill have clearly been effecting civil servants for a long time. Combined with the reduced pay (compared to inflation) over the last few years and the removal of a decent pension (something seen as the main reason many staff who started working in the civil service years ago decided to join the civil service, before the government spent the money taken in for their own means) is leaving more and more staff with mental health issues and leaving them feeling helpless . Constantly putting more and more stress on people and taking away any real benefits from working for the government is bound to have this effect, in time when people become more confident and less ashamed of the stigma associated with depression there will be an even higher level of stress or anxiety related sickness.

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