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Health service grappling with ‘new normal’ of staff sickness absences

Health service grappling with ‘new normal’ of staff sickness absences

The NHS in England saw 27 million days lost to staff sickness absences in 2022 – equivalent to the loss of 20,400 nurses and 2,900 doctors across the year, new analysis has shown.

A briefing paper published by The Nuffield Trust last week warned the number of staff absences within the health service reached ‘unprecedented and sustained’ highs between January and December 2022.

It added that the NHS in England was now facing ‘a new normal of sickness absence’ in community services and hospitals, as staff sickness soared post-pandemic.

There was a 29% increase in staff sickness absences in 2022 compared with 2019, and the analysis suggested this equalled to an average of 17,000 additional staff on sick each day.

Throughout 2022, some 27 million days were lost to sickness absence, which the Nuffield Trust said translated to 74,500 full-time staff, including 20,400 nurses and 2,900 doctors.

‘This increasing burden of sickness absence is thought to be contributing to higher costs and disruption for NHS providers, fuelling additional stress for remaining staff, and is a major push factor for staff leaving, leading to further disruption for patients and services,’ those behind the paper said.

Dr Billy Palmer, senior research fellow at the Nuffield Trust, said that the health services was ‘grappling with a difficult new normal when it comes to staff sickness leave’.

‘The increasing numbers taking time away from work feeds into a seemingly unsustainable cycle of increased work leading to burnout and then more people choosing to leave,’ added Dr Palmer.

While respiratory illness and infections conditions remained common reasons for sickness absence, in 2022 the NHS lost around six million days due to anxiety, stress, and burnout.

Latest data from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) showed that physical and mental health, and burnout or exhaustion were the second and third most common reasons for leaving the NMC register; with only retirement being more common.

Meanwhile, the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, published on Friday, said that ‘significant workforce shortages and rising demand for care are increasingly stretching NHS staff’ and that ‘we are seeing more staff absent from work due to mental ill health than ever before’.

The workforce blueprint suggested that Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) needed to develop and implement their own plans to invest in occupational health and wellbeing solutions to tackle this issue.

Additionally, the Nuffield Trust report highlighted the impact of staff sickness on the demand for temporary staffing.

Around 16% of all bank or agency nursing and midwifery staff are employed to cover long-term sickness, creating an estimated cost of £130m in 2020-21, according to the Nuffield Trust.

Royal College of Nursing director for England, Patricia Marquis, said the data was a ‘shocking picture of the daily reality facing staff’.

Though Ms Marquis said that this would come as ‘no surprise to a nursing workforce that has been working under the strain of tens of thousands of vacant posts even before the pandemic hit’.

‘We are now truly seeing the impact on the wellbeing of staff who are permanently working on understaffed shifts at the same time as waiting lists reach record levels,’ she added.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We are hugely grateful to NHS staff for their hard work and their health and wellbeing is of paramount importance.’

The spokesperson insisted that the data is ‘not necessarily representative of a broader trend, given the unprecedented impact of the Covid pandemic’.

They added: ‘For those staff that need it the NHS provides physical and mental health support – including targeted psychological support and treatment.

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