A new report has shown that sickness absence levels in Northern Ireland’s civil service are double that of England, while sickness absence in local council’s here are the worst in the UK.
A publication released this week by the Northern Ireland Audit Office shows the impact of consistently high levels of sickness absence on NI public sector service delivery – a cost to the civil service approximated at £169 million over the last five years.
The report shows that in the civil service almost 13 days per employee were lost due to sickness in 2019-20 – an increase of over 10 per cent in the last five years.
Sickness absence levels in NI councils are even higher – an average of almost 14 days per employee in 2018-19, with ranges from 10 to 17 days for individual councils.
NIAO analysis shows that this represents an increase of 13 per cent since 2014-15. Unlike the civil service, local councils do not routinely measure the overall costs due to sickness absence, but the Audit Office says “these are likely to be substantial.”
The report highlights mental health conditions as a prominent cause of sickness absence which often leads to longer absences. Such longer term absences account for over three quarters of the working days lost in the civil service, and almost two thirds of the days lost in local councils.
The report adds that older employees continue to make up a large proportion of the public sector workforce. Whilst older employees are not off more often, when they are it tends to be for longer periods of time, the report states.
A statement from the NIAO stresses “organisations will need to consider how to support the health and wellbeing of older employees in future.”
The report was by Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly CB, and Local Government Auditor, Pamela McCreedy.
Mr Donnelly said: “High levels of sickness absence within the public sector are not a new phenomenon. However, this report finds few signs of sustained improvement. It is time for public sector organisations to make a concerted effort to reduce the level of sickness absence and to develop a consistent approach to managing attendance.
“With that in mind, the Local Government Auditor and I identified a number of key principles in managing attendance that should be applied across central and local government.
“A strong attendance culture needs to be embedded across the Northern Ireland public sector, and driven from the top. We are recommending that organisations focus on targeting long-term absence through preventative measures and early intervention.
“It is also vital for all organisations to measure and analyse sickness absence levels if they are to understand their impact, not only in terms of costs, but also on the quality of services delivered to the public.”
From 2019 to 2020 in the civil service, the Department of Justice has the highest, with average days lost due to sickness averaging at 15.5 per person, with the Department for Communities not far behind at 15.1 days per person. The Executive Office is the best performer, with 9.3 days. The loss of production amounts to £37 million.
From 2018 to 2019 in local government, Causeway Coast and Glens was the highest, at 17.1 days, with Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon second at 16.7 days, and Fermanagh and Omagh the best performer at 10.4 days. Figures for 2019-20 are not available yet for all councils.