Northern Ireland Civil Service sickness absences hit nine-year high

Mental ill health accounted for more than a third of absences

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The Northern Ireland civil service recorded its highest number of average sick days for nearly a decade in 2017-18, the latest figures have revealed.

Civil servants in Northern Ireland took an average of 13 sick days last year, figures published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency today show. The number has climbed steadily in recent years, up from 12.5 days in 2016-17 and 11.7 the previous year.

The figure is the highest since 2008-09, when a new HR system was introduced, but less than the peak of 15.5 days lost per staff year in 2003-04.


It is also much higher than the latest recorded figures released by the Cabinet Office for civil servants in England, Scotland and Wales, where staff took an average of 7 sickness days in 2016-17.

The figures come as civil servants have effectively been running the government in Northern Ireland since January 2017, when a power-sharing agreement collapsed.

Mental ill health was the most common reason for absence, with anxiety, stress, depression and other mental illnesses accounting for 36.4% of days lost. Work-related stress accounted for around a third of absences in this category.

Nearly one in eight staff had at least one long-term absence in 2017-18 – the highest level for five years. These absences lasted around three months on average, and accounted for nearly three-quarters of lost working days.

Absence rates varied significantly between departments. The Department for Communities had the highest level of absence, with an average of 15.4 days lost per staff year – more than double that of the Executive Office's 7.6 days.

Female civil servants took more time off sick than their male colleagues, averaging 15.4 and 10.9 days respectively.

Newer employees also took fewer absences than their more established colleagues. Staff who had been in post for less than two years took 5.8 days on average, compared with 13.2 for those who had been there longer. NISRA noted that around half of the newer staff “would have been on probationary terms and conditions, which would include the more stringent management of sickness absence”.

The figures also showed nearly half of all NICS employees, 46.6%, had no recoded absences in 2017-18. This may have been dented by higher than usual rates of influenza, coughs and colds, the statistics agency said.

A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance said the figures were “disappointing”.

“With a workforce of over 20,000 the reality is that people are going to get sick and 86.5% of working days lost during this period were covered by a medical certificate,” they said.

“Reducing sick absence remains a priority for all departments and it is vital that work on this area continues. The challenge for the NICS is to ensure all staff have the necessary health and wellbeing support at the right time in the right place.”

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