An average of two beleaguered hospital staff are being signed off work for stress every single day, it has been revealed.
Union bosses have spoken of their concern after figures obtained by The Gazette show 732 absences were recorded in Blackpool in the first 10 months of 2016.
Against a backdrop of funding cuts, a surge in demand, and a staffing crisis, that number has increased almost sixfold since 2011, when 134 employees were ordered to take time off by their GP.
A spokesman for Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said the health of its employees remains a priority – and said a new programme aimed at combating stress is being piloted on the Fylde coast.
But Estephanie Dunn, regional director for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the North West, said workload and staffing levels are ‘standing in the way of nurses doing their jobs to the standard they would like’.
She added: “Whilst we acknowledge the number of employees at the trust has increased over the past six years, the number of those affected by stress are disproportionately high. The health and social care sector is facing unprecedented pressures and these are being exacerbated by the cap on agency staff.
“It is essential we have enough nurses with the right skills and the government needs to invest the money it needs to keep patients safe and wards staffed at the right level.”
The hospital trust said it has been working on a ‘number of schemes to combat stress’.
A spokesman said: “We were chosen by NHS Employers to pilot a new emotional wellbeing toolkit, and have put in place a scheme called How Are You Feeling Today?, which has been incorporated into the trust’s stress policy.
“This enables managers to identify the reasons for stress, and helps them to put the right interventions in place.
“We also have a number of health and wellbeing interventions in place, including proactive interventions such as menopause workshops, weight management groups, and physical activity inventions, as well as providing counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy sessions, and hypnotherapy.”
Blackpool Victoria Hospital is seeing more patients than ever before, while its bank balance has dropped in the face of funding cuts and millions of pounds worth of required savings.
Beds are full, and waiting times in A&E, where nurses were caring for patients in corridors, are suffering as a result.
That also has an impact on handover times – the length of time it takes for a patient to transfer from the care of paramedics to hospital staff – which have rocketed by 450 per cent in recent years.
Last month, nurses in the UK were told they should get a one per cent pay rise in 2017/18 by the national body that reviews NHS salaries, while junior doctors have spent the last three years locked in a dispute with the government over the introduction of a new contract.
Medics were asked to work extra hours as the trust aimed to reduce its reliance on agency staff and scoured the globe to fill hundreds of job vacancies.
Independent research conducted by mental health charity Mind shows that emergency service workers are less likely to seek support than the general population.
But they are at more risk of experiencing a mental health problem.
Work is being done to smash the stigma surrounding issues such as anxiety and depression though, including through Mind’s Blue Lights programme, which gives support to staff and volunteers from ambulance, fire, police, and search and rescue services across England and Wales.
Dan Farnworth and Rich Morton from Our Blue Light has been at the forefront of the campaign, and have also raised thousands of pounds through a series of feats.
Dan, who sought help for post-traumatic stress syndrome, said medics should ask for help if they need it – and said they could benefit from doing so.
He added: “We would encourage people to talk to one another and to talk to their friends and colleagues, and their line manager or supervisor. If you need additional help, call your GP. We encourage the power of conversation – it’s okay to say if you have poor mental health.”
The hospital trust said that, when absence is recorded with anxiety, stress, or depression as a cause, there is no indication ‘as to whether the absence is due to home or work life’.
“We know that 51 per cent of absences are in the age 41 to 55 category, and we have aimed a number of our interventions at those age groups,” it added.
Jenny Martin, north west regional organiser for Unison, said: “NHS staff are striving to keep services going for patients in increasingly difficult circumstances.
“Wards are struggling with capacity because there is insufficient funding for quality social care in the community, and A&E departments are struggling to find space for patients on the wards.
“Staff have to manage these pressures day-in and day-out, and this can take a toll.
“It is demoralising for health workers to be spread so thinly that they cannot always provide the level of care and attention they want to for each and every patient. The government has been spending less and less of our national income on the NHS each year.
“At the same time, NHS staff have learned recently that their cost-of-living pay rise will again be capped at one per cent this year.”