NI civil service sickness rates 'continually higher' than elsewhere in UK

Ulster University report says direct cost of absent officials in Northern Ireland was £39m in 2022-23
Photo: Qfamily/Flickr

By Jim Dunton

04 Jan 2024

Research from Ulster University has found that staff sickness rates in the Northern Ireland Civil Service are “continually” higher than among counterparts elsewhere in the UK or officials in the Republic of Ireland.

According to a study of sickness absence published this week by the university’s Economic Policy Centre, 5.7% of NICS working days were lost to staff absence in 2022-23, with an accompanying cost of £39m.

The proportion compares with an overall sickness-absence rate for Northern Ireland of 2.7% - higher than the 2.5% recorded in England, but lower than the 3.6% in Wales and 3% in Scotland.

The study, Sickness Absence: Lessons for Northern Ireland businesses and managers, said an average of 12.3 NICS working days per staff year had been lost in 2022-23, a slight increase on the previous year’s 12.2 but a reduction from 2019-20’s 12.9.

NICS staff absences plunged to an average of fewer than 10 working days per staff year in 2020-21, during the height of the pandemic.

The Ulster University report did not provide 2022-23 absence figures for other nations’ civil services. However, the figures indicated working days lost per staff year in the UK civil service were in the region of seven in 2019-20 and lower still at 6.9 in the Welsh Government.

Cabinet Office statistics published in March last year said UK civil service officials took an average of 7.9 sick days in 2021-22. Regionally, Northern Ireland had the highest number of days lost to ill health per staff member: 9.6. London had the lowest, at 5.9.

Ulster University report author Gillian Martin said the latest data indicated that absence levels in the NICS tended to decrease as seniority increased.

“This pay profile implies absences are greater amongst more junior grade staff,” she said. “For instance, in 2022-23 individuals who were Grade 5 and above – senior civil servants – lost 6.1 working days per staff year compared to 13.8 workings days lost for administrative staff.”

Staff at Prison Grade took the highest number of sick days, with an average of 27.2 working days lost.

The Ulster Universtity report also suggested that longer-serving staff were likely to lose more days through ill health than new-recruit counterparts.

It said NICS officials with fewer than one year of service under their belt took an average of five sick days in 2022-23, compared with 13 days for those with five or more years of service.

Martin said lower absence rates for newer staff were likely to be the result of the probation period for new staff, which includes rigorous conditions for sickness-absence management with a review after each absence and consideration of potential inefficiency action.

“This may support the idea that effective management intervention can help to reduce absences,” she said.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance leads on employment issues. It said that almost 80% of staff absences were due to long-term issues but that reducing absence rates was a key are of work.

“The health and wellbeing of colleagues is a priority for all departments,” a spokesperson said. “The Northern Ireland Civil Service offers a comprehensive range of interventions to support staff including access to occupational health professionals, a welfare support service, access to a free, 24 hour counselling service for staff and their families as well as wellbeing and mental-health awareness training for staff and managers.”

In June 2022, NICS introduced a hybrid-working policy that aims to balance work preferences of staff with departmental business needs – and which does not stipulate a number of days that officials must spend in the workplace.

The DoF spokesperson said it was “too early” to determine the impact of the policy on sickness-absence levels in the NICS.


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