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

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 

By Tamsin Rutter

15 Jan 2018

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.

Read the most recent articles written by Tamsin Rutter - What Works for monitoring and maintaining workplace wellbeing?

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