More sick days are lost to depression and anxiety than any other illness at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), new figures show, amid claims they highlight the pressure on staff forced to implement “cruel policies”.
Figures seen by The Independent show that workers at the DWP took more than 112,000 days off sick because of mental health problems in the year to 31 January 2016.
The figure is around double the number of days lost because of “diseases of the respiratory system” – a category that includes colds and flu.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS trade union which represents civil servants at the department, linked the evidence of high pressure on DWP staff to Government policies.
“This highlights the huge pressures on staff who are forced to carry out the Government's cruel policies that have turned jobcentres from places of help and support into ones of conflict and suspicion.
“DWP staff know that punishing and vilifying sick, disabled and unemployed people is not only morally wrong, it is counterproductive.”
It is not unusual for public sector workers to report higher levels of stress-related absence than those in the private sector, but the DWP’s levels appear to be at the top of the scale.
A 2015 analysis by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 65 per cent of the public sector organisations it surveyed named stress as one of the top five causes for absences, compared to just 39 per cent in the private service sector.
Overall, however, public sector organisations in general rated minor illnesses such as colds and back pain as the main reasons for absences.
In total 112,258 days were lost to mental illnesses like depression in 2015, compared to 92,598 for musculoskeletal and connective tissue diseases – back pains, repetitive strain injuries and other related illnesses. Diseases of the respiratory system took workers out of action for 61,861 days in total, over the same period, while diseases of the digestive system – mainly vomiting and stomach bugs – accounted for 58,154. Cancers were responsible for 32,884 days lost.
“Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues including stress” amounted to around 24 per cent of all absences, a proportion that has been constant for the last three years, for which data was obtained under freedom of information rules. Overall DWP employee absences were below the average for all sectors.
Mental health issues in the public sector was also named by 41 per cent of public sector organisations as a major cause of absence compared to 34 per cent of private services.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said: “Another probable factor behind higher levels of stress-related absence in the public sector is that many public sector workers are in public-facing roles where they often have to deal with people in difficult or emotionally-charged circumstances, for example social workers, teachers or police officers,” he told The Independent.
With the bulk of the DWP’s staff based in jobcentres rather than at Whitehall, most will be familiar with dealing with vulnerable people face-to-face. Last summer it was reported that DWP staff working in Universal Credit call centres had been handed a six-point plan on how to deal with people who had been denied benefits and appeared to be suicidal.
A DWP spokesman said: “The wellbeing of our staff is very important to us and the number of sick days taken has fallen significantly. Mental health problems are complex, and to try to link them to one thing – such as welfare reform – is misleading and irresponsible.”
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