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Mental Health Biggest Issue in Rising NHS Staff Sickness

Data shows staff absences reached a higher level than during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The numbers are rising

New research data shows that mental health accounts for almost a quarter of record levels of NHS staff absences, according to the Nuffield Trust. The absence rate during 2022 shows the NHS lost the equivalent of nearly 75,000 staff to illness – more than during the coronavirus pandemic.

The figure, analyzed by the Nuffield Trust from NHS data compiled for the BBC, is a rise of 29% over 2019 – the last full calendar year before Covid hit.

The analysis showed mental health issues were the top single issue, with colds, coughs, respiratory problems, and the return of flu after the pandemic accounting for further significant rises.

Analysis of the issue

According to senior fellow Dr. Billy Palmer at the Nuffield Trust,

“The health service is grappling with a difficult new normal when it comes to staff sickness leave.”


He continued by saying that while there has been a lot of focus on recruitment, more needed to be done to improve the working conditions of existing staff. He continued,

“The workforce plan needs to have concrete support to enable employers to improve NHS staff experience if the service is to break this cycle of staff absences, sickness and leaving rates.”


As not every absence would have been recorded, the Trust said the figures were likely to be lower than the actual numbers.

What does the UK Government say?

The analysis comes just weeks after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed his NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which he called the “largest expansion in training and workforce.” Sunak told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg show,

“We’re going to do something that no government has ever done. It’s going to be one of the most significant announcements in the history of the NHS, and that is to make sure that it has a long-term workforce plan so that we can hire the doctors, nurses and GPs that we need, not just today, but for years into the future, to provide the care that we all need.”


Too little, too late?

Regardless of what the government might be saying in public, behind the scenes, there must be grave concern regarding the overall state of the NHS as a whole. With staff sickness levels at an all-time high and with numbers of those staff leaving the service in droves, a high-profile campaign to recruit will only form one part of the solution to save the NHS.

Working conditions within the NHS need addressing alongside pay and conditions of staff. While the long-running pay dispute with nursing unions might have been resolved since this data came out, and other disputes involving physiotherapists, midwives, and ambulance staff likewise, another dispute deadlock involving junior doctors rumbles on.

It will take a concerted effort to reduce the sickness levels and to address the causes of the mental health issue that form the backdrop to the problem. Only with that effort and a great deal of additional support for the NHS and for those who work within it is there likely to be a significant (and much-needed drop) in these numbers.

What are your thoughts on this data? Do the high rates surprise you? How might the high levels of mental health sickness be addressed? Tell us more in the comments.


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