Mental health toll on NHS workers in lockdown revealed as first figures show staff absence rose by 165,000 days

Georgina Hayes
Doctor and nursing unions have said that pandemic-related stress, staff shortages and pay conditions are behind the increase - PA

The NHS lost a further 165,000 working days during the height of the pandemic due to mental health-related staff absences, first figures show, as staff struggled to cope with unprecedented pressure.

NHS employees have reported 29 per cent more absences from work due to poor mental health compared to the UK average between April and June, data from absence management system FirstCare has found, and there has been an overall increase of 22 per cent in mental health absences in the NHS since this time last year.

The rise equates to an increase of around 165,000 working days during the three month period - the equivalent of a full year’s work for 723 full-time employees.

It comes after data from NHS England released earlier this month found that the NHS lost 3.5 million days of work due to mental health-related sickness from March 2019 to February 2020, a significant increase from previous years and suggesting a growing trend which predates the pandemic.

Speaking to The Telegraph, doctor and nursing unions have warned that current levels of pandemic-related stress are unsustainable for staff amid increasing anxiety over a second wave.

Mental health absences for key workers are on the rise

“There is a level of exhaustion, both physically and mentally,” said Mike Adams, England director of the Royal College of Nursing. “I know lots of nurses who are exhausted, and they were in a stressful environment anyway, but now many have been redeployed to areas they’ve never worked in before, they’re wearing full PPE, and lots have seen more death than is ever reasonable on any one person.”

There is also “relentless” anxiety among staff over bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members or catching it themselves, Adams said. 

“That personal level of fear is not sustainable. If nurses and other healthcare workers were faced with the same situation again, their personal resilience is not going to be as strong next time around. There is a real risk the tanks will not have refilled.

“Personally I have seen friends who are nurses really struggling with this who are really experienced and resilient,” he added. “They have been in bits at times just with being overwhelmed by the situation.”

The pressure has also been piling on doctors, with many working extra shifts and having scheduled leave cancelled.

"I know for many of my junior doctor colleagues, the initial adrenaline that accompanied the first surge of the pandemic has well and truly worn off,” said Dr Sarah Hallett, chair of BMA Junior Doctors. “Most are running on empty and experiencing symptoms of burn out.

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"They have had leave cancelled, and their training has been put on hold. Many have worked more intense rotas. If this goes on for much longer without proper respite, I have real concerns about the impact on staff across the NHS.”

Beyond the pandemic, unions have also pointed towards staff shortages and pay conditions as a major driver behind the increase in mental health sickness.

“It has absolutely coincided with more pressure on health services and more pressure on nursing staff, who have been asked to deliver a really high standard of care with less resources and more patients,” said Adams.

“You can’t underestimate the pressure of feeling like you can’t care for people properly. That is the worst feeling - when you don’t have the time to do what you need for someone. That has played into it.”

Dr David Wrigley, deputy chair of the British Medical Association, echoed these claims.

“Even before Covid-19, NHS workers struggled to cope with acute staff shortages, long hours and real-terms decreases in income,” he told The Telegraph

“Inevitably, the pandemic has exacerbated the effects of these entrenched problems while presenting additional pressures – not least the risks to personal safety and substantially increased working hours that many doctors have faced. Sadly many doctors have also died.”

“Doctors should never feel obliged to conceal mental health issues or to attend work when unwell. Doctors often feel guilty when off work due to illness and this has to change. To tackle the stigma that still remains, employers must build a more supportive culture for the workforce and normalise conversations about mental health.”   

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of our staff is a top priority, and this week we published the NHS People Plan to address new pandemic challenges and improve physical and mental support for staff.

“The NHS has increased its health and wellbeing support for staff and a range of services are available, including a mental health hotline, practical support, financial advice, and specialist bereavement and psychological support.

“We would urge anyone struggling to come forward and speak to a colleague, their occupational health team, or to call the helpline so that they can get the help they need.”

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