Does the civil service really have a growing problem with long-term sickness?

Some departments are making progress, but the annual number of days lost is up by 23.6% over eight years
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By Jim Dunton

12 Feb 2024

Department-by-department breakdowns of the number of days lost to long-term sickness show a marked rise between 2015 and 2022. But while the figures have been used by former Cabinet Office minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg as a platform to lob accusations of “malingering” at public servants, the truth is not so clear-cut.

Current Cabinet Office minister John Glen released the figures earlier this month in response to a parliamentary question from Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine.

The headline numbers say 1,858,200 days were lost to long-term sickness across the civil service in 2022, a 23.6% increase on the figure for 2015. The figures include the Scottish Government and Welsh Government, but they exclude departments that were reorganised in last year’s machinery of government changes – principally the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade.

A Cabinet Office transparency update published in March last year said the average number of working days lost to sickness per “staff year” in 2021-2022 had been 7.9. Of those, 4.3 days were due to long-term sickness. Mental ill-health was the largest cause of long-term sickness absence, followed musculoskeletal system disorders.

Average days lost per staff year is the government’s preferred metric. The incomplete eight-year figures provided to parliament by Glen range from an average of one day lost per staff year to long-term sickness at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2015 to an average of 7.4 days lost at the Ministry of Justice in 2022. The figures provided to parliament also do not show any yearly totals for the whole civil service.

Fortunately, supporting data for the release published in March last year provides a better picture. It shows that average working days lost to long-term sickness per staff year across the whole civil service have remained broadly stable between 2015 and 2022. They began the period at 4.2 and dropped progressively to 3.9 in 2018, rising to 4.0 the following year and 4.3 in 2020. The average fell to 3.6 in 2021.

Most tellingly, the dataset goes back further than the figures provided to MPs by Glen and adds context that is a spanner in the works for those who would seek to portray long-term sickness rates as being on a constantly-worsening trajectory.

The figures show that in 2010 an average of 4.5 days per staff year were lost to long-term sickness absence in the civil service, the highest number in the 13-year period to 2022. The following year the average was 4.3 days, the same as 2022.

Total numbers grow as civil service gets bigger

Averages aside, there is no dispute that the eight years covered by Glen’s figures have seen significant growth in the number of civil servants, rising to the demands of delivering Brexit and responding to Covid-19. The number of actual days lost to long-term sickness has also grown.

According to the Cabinet Office’s annual statistics, civil service full-time-equivalent headcount grew by 17.9% between March 2015 and March 2022.

Unsurprisingly, government’s biggest departments have some of the highest numbers of days lost to long-term sickness, and the biggest increases. The MoJ lost 596,420 days to long-term sickness in 2022, the highest of any department. In second place was the Department for Work and Pensions with 383,320 days.

The MoJ’s figure is a 34.6% increase on 2015 and 60% up on 2018. Its average number of working days lost to long-term sickness per staff year was 7.4 in 2022, compared with 6.8 in 2015 and 5.7 in 2019.

The department had the highest average number of days lost to long-term sickness per staff year of any department in Glen’s figures between 2015 and 2022, save for three years – 2018, 2019 and 2020 – when it was beaten by the Scottish Government.

DWP’s 2022 figure for total days lost to long-term sickness is 46.4% up on 2015 and 73% up on 2016. Its average number of  days lost to long-term sickness per staff year in 2022 was 4.5, up from 3.2 in 2015 and 2.9 in 2016.

Not all departments are on the same trajectory as MoJ and DWP, however.

The Cabinet Office lost 20,750 staff days to long-term sickness in 2022, a near four-fold increase on 2015’s figures. Yet its average number of days lost to long-term sickness per staff year was 1.9 for both years.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has managed to level down both its total days-lost figure and its average per staff year. In 2022 the department lost 7,670 days to long-term sickness compared with 8,460 days lost at its predecessor, the Department for Communities and Local Government, in 2015.

DLUHC’s average for days lost to long-term sickness per staff year dropped from 3.4 to 2.0 over the same period.

At the Ministry of Defence, the number of staff days lost to long-term sickness dropped from 222,240 in 2015 to 149,690 in 2022; its average days lost per staff year fell from 4.4 to 2.8 over the period.

Grade concerns

Fran Heathcote, newly-elected general secretary of PCS – the civil service’s biggest union – said there were stark lessons that ministers should be taking from the sickness-absence statistics.

“There have been two large-scale studies into sickness in Whitehall and they have both revealed that the lower the grade of the employee, the higher their sick and death rates,” she said.

“The studies also found a firm connection between the way work is organised and the subsequent health impacts – effectively saying much sickness absence is caused by work itself because of stress and other factors.”

Heathcote said PCS had raised these issues with managers at the MoJ and the Cabinet Office – which has oversight of HR for the whole civil service – but they “refused” to take action.

“If the government was serious about tackling sickness levels in the civil service, they would engage with us and look at ways of changing how people work,” she said.

Last year’s official civil service sickness-absence data contains a grade-by-grade breakdown of average working days lost that bears out Heathcote’s point about seniority being inversely proportional to the number of sick days taken.

The data shows that Administrative Assistants and Administrative Officers – the civil service’s lowest grades – lost an average of 11.8 days per staff year to sickness in 2022. The figure is the highest of any year since 2010, when the average number of days lost through absence was 11.1.

The 2022 data shows that the average days lost figure for AAs and AOs breaks down to 6.4 days per staff year for long-term sickness and 5.4 days for short-term sickness.

Executive Officers, the next grade up, lost an average of 8.8 days per staff year to sickness in 2022. The figure brings together 4.7 days per staff year for long-term sickness and 4.1 days for short-term sickness.

At the other end of the scale, annual days lost to sickness per staff year among members of the senior civil service was 2.1. The figure represents 1.2 days lost per staff year for long-term sickness and 0.9 days for short-term sickness.

Between EO and SCS level, each step up in seniority across the civil service results in fewer average days lost to sickness per staff year, with the trend visible in the data going back to 2010.

The civil service statistics for the year ending 31 March 2022 show that MoJ and DWP were not only the two biggest departments in the civil service, but that both had a higher proportion of AAs,  AOs, and EOs than any other department.

A government spokesperson said: “We expect sick leave to be managed with common sense.

“The civil service provides its employees with a comprehensive range of health and wellbeing tools, supportive policies, measures and signposting to ensure that employees remain in work or return to work as quickly as possible following absence due to ill health.”

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