Sick days in the NHS caused by mental health problems more than doubled in the past decade – and that is before the coronavirus crisis gripped the health service.
Figures uncovered by Labour reveal the devastating toll that serving in hospitals, surgeries and operating theatres is taking on dedicated doctors, nurses and other staff.
They show a huge leap in the amount of time health service workers have taken off because of their mental health.
According to statistics from NHS Digital and published following a written parliamentary question, 2,060,416 days were lost due to mental health reasons between January and December 2010.
But between January and December 2019, the number soared to 4,796,928 – a surge of 138%.
The figures only cover the end of last year – just as the NHS was beginning to brace itself for the most intense period of pressure in its 72-year history.
Shadow Health Minister Rosena Allin-Khan, an A&E doctor who uncovered the grim statistics, said: “Such a sharp increase in mental health absences among NHS staff highlights the vital need for a support package for frontline staff that truly works.
“Now, more than ever, NHS staff are putting their lives at risk in order to keep us all safe.
“The Government should not be ignoring the mental health impact that coronavirus is having on the lives of NHS staff.
“NHS staff have been forced to deal with the most difficult situations and working conditions.
“Clapping is not enough – the Government must support their mental health now.”
Answering the written Commons question, the Department of Health said that in 2010, mental health reasons included “’other mental disorders’, ‘psychological’, ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety/stress/depression/other psychiatric illnesses’”.
By 2019, mental health reasons were classed as “anxiety/stress/depression/other psychiatric illnesses”.
Experts fear the unprecedented crisis unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic will worsen existing mental health woes among frontline health staff – and trigger new problems among a whole new generation of workers.
British Medical Association mental health spokesman Dr Andrew Molodynski said: “These figures are truly shocking, but are unfortunately just a snapshot of the pressures facing NHS staff across the country as they work with a lack of resources, chronic underfunding, and immense workloads – and long before the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“We already know that the virus has taken an additional toll on many healthcare professionals, with a recent BMA survey of more than 7,000 doctors showing that 41% of doctors were suffering with depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress or another mental health condition relating to or made worse by their work, with 29% saying this had got worse during the pandemic.
“It’s clear that more support is desperately needed for all staff, now more than ever, but even as this virus subsides, the chronic pressures facing the NHS are not going to go away.
“As well as wellbeing support, we therefore urgently need to see more resources put into our health – not only for the sake of our patients, but also those who care for them day-in-day-out.”
Royal College of Nursing national officer Kim Sunley said: “The added pressure and emotional trauma experienced by all nursing staff, whatever setting they are working in, means there is a very clear need for them to have easy access to support.
“Whilst some steps have been taken to provide this for those that need it now, this must be something that is available for the long term.
“Acknowledging that nursing staff need dedicated resources to protect their mental health is just the start and must be followed up with investment for the future, including tackling the extrinsic causes of poorer mental health.
“As we emerge from where we are now, and services return it is vital that support is still available.”
Royal College of Midwives executive director of external relations Jon Skewes said: “The RCM recently surveyed its members and over half (57%) who responded told us the current crisis was having a negative impact not just their physical health, but on their mental health.
“We know that excessive workloads and understaffing impacts on midwives and often leads to high levels of stress and physical burnout, and this undoubtedly is reflected in sickness absence levels.
“We acknowledge NHS employers are working to support their staff, but they must ensure their staff get the psychological help and support they need so it doesn’t affect their work and day to day life.
“Before and throughout this pandemic midwives have consistently worked unpaid overtime to ensure the women in their care are receiving safe maternity care, but this inevitably takes its toll on their physical and mental health.
“The mental health of midwives is just as important as their physical health, and both must be cared for if they are to do their jobs and provide safe, high quality care to women and their babies.”
Answering the parliamentary question, Health Minister Helen Whately said: “Part of the increase in FTE (full time equivalent) days lost by sickness absence reason may be attributable to the improvement in completion of sickness absence reason information by staff.
“The recording of sickness absence may have been increased by initiatives such as the NHS Health and Wellbeing framework.
“Mental health awareness has increased in the last 10 years, with employers being more understanding and employees feeling more able to disclose mental health issues.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of our staff is a top priority, and we understand the huge pressures they and their families face, particularly during this unprecedented pandemic.
“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, 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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