Staff sickness absence due to mental ill health cost the Home Office more than £12m last year, while other departments have reported losing hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of staff time to stress alone.
Senior officials at two of Whitehall’s biggest unions said ministers and civil service leaders should not be surprised that increased workloads and stubbornly high harassment levels were pushing staff over the edge.
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, who compiled the data, said the impact of Brexit was also likely to be a contributing factor – both in terms of direct attacks on civil servants and because of focus on leaving the European Union was diverting staff from other policy work.
Brake submitted a series of questions to government departments seeking to shed light on the scale of the effects of stress and other mental health conditions on civil servants. The answers he received revealed wide discrepancies in how departments collect and report data linking mental ill health, attendance and costs.
The figures have been shared as departments up their efforts to improve staff wellbeing through initiatives such as counselling and mental-health first aid training, but unions have warned that mental health-related absence could rise if pay and workload issues go unaddressed.
In 2018-19, 2,102 of civil servants at the Home Office – 6% of the department’s staff – took time off work because of mental ill health. Altogether, mental health-related absences accounted for 30% of all sickness absence at the department last year, and cost the department an estimated £12.1m.
“The pressure of workload is not being dealt with quickly enough within departments; without a genuine resolve to reduce the causes of stress, employees will continue to need to take sick leave to recover,” Lucille Thirlby, FDA
Of the six departments that gave figures specifically addressing mental-health related absence, the Home Office reported having the highest proportion of staff who had taken time off for a mental health condition.
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said her department was “committed to breaking down barriers and reducing stigma for employees living with mental health conditions”.
“We aim to equip managers to recognise and address stress in the workplace and encourage employees to talk to their managers about mental health issues so that they can access help and support at the earliest stage,” she added.
Brake’s questioning also showed that 4% of staff at the Ministry of Justice – 2,764 in total – had mental health-related absences in 2018-19, accounting for 7% of employees with any sickness absence. At the Department for International Development, mental health conditions caused 106 employees, or 3.6% of the workforce, to take time off. Neither department could put a figure on how much this had cost.
At the Department of Health and Social Care, 46 staff, or 3%, had a period of absence due to mental ill health. They accounted for 22% of total sickness absence for the department, costing an estimated £936,927.
And at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2% of staff had mental health-related absences – a proportion environment minister Robert Goodwill said had remained “constant... for the last five years”.
But despite only causing a small proportion of Defra staff to miss time at work – 109 altogether – psychological illnesses such as stress, depression and anxiety were responsible for 35% of all sickness absence at the department. And mental health-related absences cost Defra £427,559.55 last year, Goodwill said.
Brake had asked departments to share how many of their staff had taken time off for stress, how that figure related to overall sickness absence levels, and the cost of stress-related absence.
Departments admit to data gaps
But not all departments said they gathered such granular data. Also among the departments that did not report stress-related absence separately from other mental ill health condition was the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where 1.5% of staff took time off related to mental health, and the Department for International Trade, where the figure was 1%.
Of the departments that did specifically record stress-related absences, the Department for Transport reported having the highest proportion of staff affected – 4% of its total workforce as of April 2019, totalling 553 employees.
Stress accounted for 8% of people who took time off sick but 14% of DfT work days lost to sickness absence, transport minister Jesse Norman said. Although he did not provide a detailed breakdown of costs, Norman said the department lost £13.71m to sick leave overall – meaning the cost of stress-related absence could well total millions of pounds.
Norman said DfT had “a number of sources of support for employees”, including free counselling and a volunteer-run buddy network, as well as a mental health first aid service. It had also provided resources for managers including action plans to guide conversations with staff about wellbeing, he said.
DWP tops league on stress-related absence
The number of staff with stress-related absences was higher at the Department for Work and Pensions than any other, at 2,473, but because of the department’s size this amounted to only 3% of its overall headcount. DWP minister Will Quince said the figure amounted to 11% of working days lost to sickness absence, but said the department had calculated “no direct financial cost” of these lost days.
Several departments reported that 1% or less of their staff had taken stress-related absences. They included the Foreign Office, where 41 employees took time off for stress in 2018, at a cost of £355,898; 48 at the Cabinet Office, which lost £199,434; and 16 at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which lost £70,130.
“I have heard members of parliament, including ministers, being very critical of civil servants. I think that is unfair," Tom Brake
At the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government, 1% of staff reported stress-related absences; at the Department for Education, 2%. The Attorney General’s Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union said because of their size, they could not share figures because it could risk identifying people.
Almost all of the responses set out steps departments had taken to improve their mental health support services, with many saying they had introduced mental health first aid training. BEIS also said it ran a series of wellbeing events and e-learning packages on stress, resilience and wellbeing; the MoJ said staff could seek advice 24/7 from its occupational health service and employee assistance programme; and DCMS said it had introduced a “stress assessment and reduction plan toolkit” for managers.
And there has also been a push to boost wellbeing at the highest levels of the civil service. While departments were processing their responses to the questions, the Civil Service Leadership Academy published a video campaign to mark Mental Health Awareness Week in which senior leaders who had experienced mental health problems shared their experiences.
Among them was chief people officer Rupert McNeil, who said he had taken time off work after struggling with anxiety and depression. McNeil said he wanted to encourage civil servants who needed it to access support and help drive a “cultural change towards openness and honesty about mental health”.
Departments “lack resolve” to deal with problem
But Lucille Thirlby, assistant general secretary for the FDA union, said that although measures to improve wellbeing were welcome, “there is still a long way to go to ensure civil servants aren’t damaged just by trying to do their jobs”.
“The pressure of workload is not being dealt with quickly enough within departments, and without a genuine resolve to reduce the causes of stress employees will continue to need to take sick leave to recover,” she said, noting that the union’s annual working hours surveys had shown “stress and pressure at work are two major factors contributing to poor mental health and sick leave”.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS trade union, said it was “no surprise” that civil servants were having to take time off work due to stress or other mental ill health. “This is due to increased workloads and staffing cuts,” he said.
“Our members want to work in a safe well-staffed and well-paid jobs. Unless ministers get their act together, the problem of stress and sick related absences will continue.”
Serwotka also pointed to the results of the latest Civil Service People Survey, in which 11% of civil servants said they had experienced bullying or harassment. Last year unions urged the civil service to step up efforts to tackle bullying after a review led by then-Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport permanent secretary Dame Sue Owen showed many staff did not believe bullying and harassment were taken seriously.
Brexit is not helping
Lib Dem MP Brake said his concern over the impact of stress and an increasingly toxic political environment on staff had prompted him to seek out the figures.
“I’m aware that there are concerns being expressed about mental health among members of parliament in terms of the impact of Brexit, partly because it’s led to a higher level of social media abuse,” he said, and was keen to determine whether similar problems were being seem in the civil service.
He also said it was “demoralising” for policymakers that little progress had been made on negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU, while the focus on Brexit had led to other policy agendas being sidelined.
Brake said he sympathised with civil servants who had faced attacks on their impartiality, all while shunted around Whitehall to deal with the extra workload brought about by Brexit preparations.
“At the very least that’s destabilising and that’s unlikely to lead to a reduction in stress levels,” he said.
The former deputy leader of the House of Commons added: “I have heard members of parliament, including ministers, being very critical of civil servants. I think that is unfair.
“My experience as a government minister was that civil servants acted efficiently on the requests or guidance they were given by ministers, but on the subject of Brexit it’s clearly very difficult for them to proceed became there is a lack of direction. Civil servants can’t be blamed for that.”