During 2007-08, an average of 12·9 days per staff year were lost as a result of sickness absence; that was down from 13·7 days in the previous year, and from a high of 15·5 days in 2003-04. Recent figures indicate that that downward trend has continued, and if it continues to do so, it is estimated that the out-turn figure for 2008-09 could be about 11·5 days. Although still short of the overall target for the year of 10·2 days, those are encouraging signs. It is also encouraging to note that the proportion of staff with no recorded sickness absence has increased from 40·7% in 2006-07 to 43·1 % in 2007-08, suggesting a growing culture of attendance.
There have been significant developments over the past 12 months, with the publication of the Northern Ireland Audit Office report ‘Managing Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service’ and the subsequent report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The Northern Ireland Civil Service Task Force also produced a report on long-term sickness absence. Taken together, those reports present a formidable agenda of work, and my officials are developing a framework for implementation.
I am grateful to the Member for his question. There is no doubt that there are differences in the rates of absenteeism between and even within Departments. That can be affected by the composition of the workforce — for example, gender, age, and grade, the size of the organisation, as well as the structure and nature of the work. The statistics show that female staff and staff in the more junior grades have higher levels of sickness absence.
The Member asked about particular Departments; the most notable case is the Department for Social Development (DSD), including the child-enforcement and maintenance division and the Social Security Agency, where more than 58% of staff are female, compared with almost 30% in Department for Regional Development (DRD), for instance. The grade profile of those Departments is also different: 82% of staff in DSD are employed in the more junior grades, compared to 38% in DRD. I use that only as an illustration, but it should be said that we should not simply accept as inevitable or legitimate that some staff have higher levels of sickness than others simply because they fall into certain groups. We need to understand the reasons behind it and take action to deal with it.
Given that high levels of stress are the primary cause of absence from the workplace, can the Minister tell us what action plans he and his Department are taking forward to increase morale and motivation in the workplace, with a view to reducing stress in it?
It is of course fundamentally a matter for each Department to ensure that schemes and action plans are in place to tackle sickness absence, but the approach of the Civil Service to tackling sickness absence is based on four themes: promoting the health and well-being of staff; supporting staff when they are sick; facilitating staff returning from sickness absence; and dealing robustly with inappropriate levels of absence, including through efficiency procedures. That approach was recently scrutinised by the Audit Office and the PAC, and I will be actively considering the various recommendations. However, policies must be kept under review, and certain Departments have a much better track record than others. High sickness absence is therefore not inevitable; it can be tackled, and it is essential that we continue to do what we can to deal with the problem.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given the comments that the Minister made about under-representation, has any progress been made to recruit more Protestant males at the lower grades of the Civil Service and more women and Catholics at the higher grades to combat under-representation?
That question is not directly related to the issue of sickness absences. In fact, it is not related at all, I think. [Laughter.] Nevertheless, my Department is well aware of the need to ensure that fair systems are in place that will lead to the recruitment of a balanced workforce in proportion to the make up of the community. It is an issue that we continue to monitor and work at.
All of those issues are difficult to turn around quickly because we are dealing with large numbers of employees. Therefore, we have to continue to monitor, to report and continually to keep under review the policies that are in place to deal with those issues; and if they are not working, to seek to address why they are not working.