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Mental health causing more than a quarter of NHS staff absences

Sickness absences due to mental health across all NHS staff groups in England have reached pandemic levels, latest data from NHS Digital shows. 

In 2023, anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses accounted for 25.8% of sickness absences across all professions, more than double the second most common reason for absence. 

Increasing yearly since 2015, absences peaked in 2020 when they reached an eight-year optimum of 26.6% before dropping slightly in 2022. 

Source: NHS Digital, Graph: Flourish

Across all staff groups, 5.27m full time equivalent days were lost due to mental health in 2023.

A mental health nurse, responsible for training a team of NHS staff, shared insight into the demanding and challenging working environments.

They said: “In over five years of working for the NHS I have never taken a day off for my mental health because I feel like I will be judged for it.

“I have struggled at many points in my job, but when speaking with other managers, it seems they are quite judgemental of staff who take days off for mental health.

“It doesn’t feel like there is an environment where we can and there is often a ‘get on with it’ attitude in the workplace.”

NHS Employers released statistics from 2023 which indicate that nine out of ten staff who experience mental health conditions face stigma and discrimination as a result of this.

60% of people disclosed stigma as more damaging than the actual symptoms of their mental health.

The mental health nurse added: “In our profession, we’re specifically trained to look after staff and patient wellbeing, but there is little understanding in management roles across other departments on how to manage staff well being.

“Many days you miss your break, don’t eat or drink properly and you’re dealing with psychiatric or medical emergencies while you’re tired, hungry and burnt out.

“It all builds up but if you take a day off you feel guilty because you know your colleagues are dealing with a bigger workload and nothing really changes when you return.”

Sickness absences across staff groups

A stark deviation between absence reasons can be identified across all occupations, but NHS midwives have stood out with higher absence rates due to mental health. 

Source: NHS Digital, Graph: Flourish

While a highly rewarding profession, mental health has accounted for 26.7% of absences among midwives in the last eight years. 

When comparing to other occupations, there are smaller disparities between absence reasons, whereas in midwives, the contrast is more evident.

In 2023 alone, mental health accounted for 30.8% of absences, almost four times the rate for cold cough flu and gastrointestinal problems.

This rate has increased by almost half since 2015, rising yearly with a slight dip in 2022.

Agnes Embi, 26, practised at St Thomas’ Hospital as a registered nurse and is now training in midwifery at St George’s Hospital.

She said: “When I started, I remember the more qualified staff would cry in the toilets because they were feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

“Within six months of working, I started to feel pressure myself and my workload was increasing rapidly.

“Eventually when it piles up mentally, you start to feel physically sick too and inevitably need the time off.

“This means your colleagues are taking on bigger workloads because there is no cover, also getting burnt out and the cycle continues.”

Zooming in to reasons why

The aftermath of the ‘crisis’ period during COVID-19 and PTSD associated with working on the frontlines throughout the pandemic are increasingly being felt by staff, as reflected in the absence rates. 

Witnessing suffering, sickness and death is psychologically demanding on anyone but these issues have been further heightened by the cost of living and subsequent strike actions across the workforce. 

When analysing reasons why, a national deficiency of staff identified in nursing and midwifery could perhaps correlate to the higher number of sickness absences. 

Vacancies across the country have put a strain on staff to work more, covering for colleagues and training newcomers with pressures on post-pandemic recovery mounting on health services.

Rising costs and pay cuts are causing staff to take on extra shifts through NHS banks, and while it provides an extra income, it is increasing weekly working hours, causing further burnout.

Mental health support in the NHS

The NHS continues to implement strategies to improve working environments with support services such as hubs in place which offer counselling and therapy. 

‘Growing Occupational Health and Wellbeing Together’ is a long-term approach which aims to improve wellbeing services for staff throughout the country and align with the ‘People Promise’.

A spokesperson from the NHS said: “NHSE continues to equip line managers and teams with the tools to have routine conversations about health and wellbeing. 

“The NHS understands that prevention is key, which is why our focus remains on strengthening our Occupational Health services through this strategy.

Staff struggling with their mental health can access the NHS’ confidential support service 24/7 by texting FRONTLINE to 85258. 

Feature image Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

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