Report on Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Public Sector

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 04 March 2015

Reference: NIA 237/11-16

ISBN: 978-0-339-60569-5

Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/16 Thirteenth Report

report-on-sickness-absence-vol-1.pdf (11.55 mb)

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Volume One

Volume Two

Executive Summary

Arising from this cross-cutting review of sickness absence in the Northern Ireland public sector, the Committee for Finance and Personnel has identified potential savings of approximately £37million per year for the public purse if average sickness absence rates in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the Health Trusts and the Education sector are brought into line with that of their equivalents in Great Britain. The Committee believes that the findings and recommendations from its review will inform and assist the Department of Finance and Personnel and the wider Executive in overseeing and directing the efforts of departments and other public bodies to meet sickness absence targets, maximise the related savings and thereby contribute to the wider programme of measures to meet the mounting budgetary challenges facing the public sector.

The Committee’s decision to undertake the review arose from a referral by the Public Accounts Committee of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Public Sector. This provided an initial evidence base on performance against targets for reducing sickness absence, which the Committee built upon by a co-ordinated scrutiny of policy and implementation to identify good practice and areas for improvement. This included oral hearings on cross-sectoral issues from the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, as well as departmental and sector-specific evidence, including input from the other Assembly statutory committees in relation to their respective departments. In addition, the Committee commissioned research on specific issues and considered up-to-date information on departmental performance against targets available from Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency publications.

In terms of the headline findings for each of the three parts of the public sector examined, the Committee noted that, while there was a downward trend in absence rates in the Northern Ireland Civil Service departments up until 2012, this levelled out subsequently and that there has been a consistent failure to meet overall targets, with absence rates remaining higher than the Civil Service in GB. While the majority of civil servants record no sickness absence, long-term absence, particularly due to mental ill-health reasons, has been identified as a key area for attention. The Committee is mindful that there is now an increased organisational focus on tackling this issue, including a renewed emphasis on staff compliance with reporting mechanisms, on managing attendance training, and on preventative and early intervention measures, such as bullying/harassment awareness and wellbeing programmes. In terms of the latter, members see the potential benefits from roll-out of various mental health initiatives currently being trialled.

More generally, the Committee considers that, while good practice policies exist within the Northern Ireland Civil Service, these need to be applied rigorously and consistently within and across departments. Similar themes were noted in respect of the Health and Education sectors, including the need: to focus on reducing long-term absence caused by mental ill-health; for a more uniform application of good practice policies; to set challenging but realistic targets; and for improved monitoring and reporting of performance.

This co-ordinated report includes recommendations on specific measures aimed at helping to drive down sickness absence rates across the public sector. The Committee believes that there is now an increased impetus and onus on all Executive ministers, senior management boards and oversight bodies to rigorously monitor and challenge, as necessary, the performance of public bodies in meeting sickness absence targets over the coming years.

Key Conclusions and Recommendations

1. The Committee acknowledges that the NICS has good practice policies in place for addressing sickness absence and welcomes the introduction across departments of health and wellbeing initiatives, such as the WELL programme, and the trialling of new approaches as part of the Sickness Absence Recovery Strategy. Members also recognise that individual departments can have particular challenges in managing sickness absence as a consequence of the job profiles and work patterns of their staff, which means that direct comparisons between departments can sometimes prove difficult. Similarly, it is evident that comparisons with sickness levels in the private sector are problematic due to various factors, including a lack of comprehensive data on absence levels in that sector. (paragraph 55)

2. The Committee welcomes the research findings which indicate that the wider public sector in Northern Ireland has more robust procedures for reporting and managing sickness absence than its private sector counterpart. Moreover, members are encouraged to see that the percentage of the NICS staff with no recorded sick absence throughout the year increased to over 55 per cent in 2013-14, which provides a good basis to build upon going forward. (paragraph 56)

3. Nonetheless, the Committee is concerned to note that sickness absence levels in the NICS continue to be higher than in the GB civil service and that the NICS has persistently failed to achieve overall sickness absence reduction targets in recent years, which represents a missed opportunity to realise significant savings for the public purse. As such, the Committee considers that further measures need to be put in place to ensure that the existing good practice NICS policies are applied and implemented rigorously and consistently within and across departments. (paragraph 57)

4. The Committee would encourage the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the wider Executive to place a particular priority on reducing long-term sickness absence rates within the NICS, especially in terms of measures to address mental ill-health reasons for absence. Members consider that a concerted focus on consistent application of good practice in this area, and in terms of stress-related absence generally, is all the more pressing given the added challenges arising from public sector reform, particularly in managing the impact on existing staff from losing large numbers of public servants under the VES. (paragraph 87)

5. As part of the continued drive to restore the downward trend in sickness absence rates in the NICS, the Committee recommends that DFP leads in co-ordinating and monitoring the implementation of the following practical steps across departments:

  • NICS-wide roll out of the pilot health and wellbeing schemes, such as the Mental Health First Aid training programme and the Caloriewise programme, which have demonstrated the potential to contribute to reducing absence rates and proactive employee engagement on further measures in this regard;
  • systematic adoption of early intervention measures, such as referral to specialist physiotherapy services and cognitive behavioural therapy as applicable;
  • continued corporate emphasis on managerial and staff compliance with reporting mechanisms, such as return to work interviews, to ensure that any problems can be aired at an early stage and staff can be given the correct assistance;
  • a review of the role of HR Connect in supporting measures to reduce sickness absence, including its potential to support the monitoring of absence rates and compliance with reporting mechanisms;
  • integration of health and wellbeing considerations into Personal Development Plans and/or Personal Performance Agreements of all the NICS staff, with the necessary employer support measures included in organisational plans;
  • provision of tailored and up-to-date training and ongoing support to ensure line managers are fully skilled to carry out their managing attendance duties, with a particular focus on additional training specifically targeted towards business areas with significantly higher absence rates;
  • strategic and co-ordinated application of flexible working practices across the NICS, with a particular focus on the option of flexible location working (e.g. from satellite/hub offices), including where this could facilitate earlier return to work in the case of long-term absence;
  • a PSG-led review of sickness absence targets at a departmental level to ensure they are realistic and achievable, as well as being challenging, based on up-to-date information on prior-year performance; and
  • applying lessons, from the public and private sectors, across all departments and the regular evaluation of sickness absence policies and programmes against developing good practice.(paragraph 88)

6. In encouraging the DHSSPS and the Health Trusts to continue to focus on long-term sickness absence, particularly mental health and musculoskeletal problems, the Committee recommends that consistent sickness absence targets are set to cover all Trusts, including the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service which currently sets its own targets. (paragraph 106)

7. The Committee recommends that the sickness absence targets for Trusts are further informed both by benchmarking with comparator health bodies in other jurisdictions, where possible, and by an analysis of the information from the new HR, Payroll, Travel and Subsistence (HRPTS) reporting system. Such benchmarking should not only be used to inform target setting but also to monitor and assess on-going performance and identify potential areas of best practice. (paragraph 107)

8. To facilitate monitoring and scrutiny, the Committee recommends that all the Health Trusts publish the details of their performance against sickness absence targets since 2010-11 and going forward. (paragraph 108)

9. In noting the findings and recommendations from the Committee for Education’s separate scrutiny of sickness absence in DE and the wider Education sector, the Committee for Finance and Personnel echoes the call for various measures to be taken, including:

  • action to address growing levels of stress-related absence and the high proportion of long-term absence amongst teachers, which has significant financial and human costs;
  • monitoring the effectiveness of teachers’ health and wellbeing programmes and provision of awareness training for teachers in this area;
  • sharing good practice in order to address the reported disparity in teacher absence levels across the ELBs/CCMS by ensuring that the ‘Best Practice Forum’ engages with all schools regardless of sector;
  • engagement with all school sectors in developing an education-wide composite absence strategy, which will include a focus on benchmarking and will address the NIAO Report recommendations; and
  • setting targets which are realistic and achievable but which also drive improvement in reducing sickness absence across the Education sector. (paragraph 111)

10. In conclusion, the Committee would encourage DFP and the wider Executive to implement the recommendations from this coordinated report with a view to realising the potential savings of approximately £37million per year if the average sickness absence rates in the NICS, the Health Trusts and the Education sector are brought into line with GB. Given the significance of this in the context of the budgetary pressures facing the Executive, the Committee would underline the importance of future performance against sickness absence targets by departments, including at the level of individual business areas, and arms-length bodies being scrutinised regularly by PSG, departmental boards, senior management boards within the Health and Educations sectors and by Assembly statutory committees as applicable. (paragraph 112)

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