Staff absence rate at Blackpool Victoria Hospital hits record high as stressed medics call in sick

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The number of Blackpool Victoria Hospital staff calling in sick has hit a record high as our NHS heroes strain under the pressure.

The number of Blackpool Victoria Hospital staff calling in sick has hit a record high as our NHS heroes strain under the pressure.

A file photo of a hospital ward, dated 3/10/14 (Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

A file photo of a hospital ward, dated 3/10/14 (Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

More than six per cent of the hospital’s workers are now off at any one time, with one in four short-term absences chalked down to stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Some 15 per cent were struggling with colds, coughs, and the flu, while another 14 per cent had broken a bone or suffered some other injury.

Psychiatric illness was also the biggest cause of long-term absences, followed by injuries and cancer, hospital documents revealed.

Despite hiring more staff and spending more cash than expected on agency staff, a move which has badly affected the hospital’s budget, bosses still found themselves so desperate for staff over the Christmas break they had to issue an urgent appeal on the social media site Twitter.

It promised staff “enhanced rates” of pay to cover shifts, and said medics already on duty had been swamped by a “particularly high” demand.

A Vic spokesman said there had been a surge in NHS staff calling in sick across the country.

And HR boss Kevin Moynes said the health of workers is “one of the main areas of focus for the trust as we fully appreciate our staff are our greatest asset”.

He said: “We have a campaign called ‘Thrive’ for staff, which promotes sporting and recreational activities and have wellbeing, resilience, and stress-reduction programmes alongside our employee assistance programme, which is available for all staff and their families.”

But Maggy Heaton, chairman of the Lancashire West branch of the Royal College of Nursing, and union rep at the Vic, said recently: “The resilience is running low, to be quite honest. Staff are burnt out before they even start their shifts.”

Ms Heaton said nurses were routinely working over 13 hour shifts, skipping breaks, and working late to cover absent colleagues.

Nationally, stress was thought to account for around 30 per cent of all sick days within the NHS, costing it around £300m to £400m a year.

And almost 40 per cent of staff responding to a staff survey at the Vic said they had felt “unwell as a result of work-related stress”, with those aged 41 to 50 most likely to suffer.

The hospital’s workforce director Jane Meek said HR staff were in talks with managers to try and address the sickness rate of 6.23 per cent in November, the latest month for which figures are available and which she said was “the highest rate on record” and a “significant increase on the figure for the same period in 2018”.

“This month, long term absence continues to decrease and short term absence continues to increase,” she said in a report that went before bosses on Tuesday morning.

Mr Moynes said the main reasons staff called in sick in November were short-term coughs, colds, flu, and stomach bugs. Around 45 per cent of staff had chosen to have a free flu jab by then.

More than 100,000 days were lost at the trust in 2018, a Gazette investigation revealed last year, sparking concern from Estephanie Dunn, the regional director for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the north west.

She said: “It’s a sad reflection of chronic nursing shortages in Blackpool and beyond that nurses are becoming overwhelmed, stressed and burned out.

“Nurses feel such a duty to their patients they will often still report for work when they’re unwell, and these figures may mask the true extent of the problem of stress and burnout among nurses.

“The RCN North West is supporting members at Blackpool Victoria Hospital and we’re doing all we can to prevent staff going off in the first place, and if they do, we’re helping them return to work when the time is right.

“A survey of our own members found 61 per cent of nursing staff say they are too busy to provide the level of care to patients that they would like, a significant increase from 43 per cent 10 years ago.

“The offer of enhanced pay to cover shifts is no way to reduce stress. It cannot be right that our nurses are becoming ill going about their job helping patients to recover their own health.

“These latest numbers should act as wake-up call and it is time to for ministers and healthcare leaders to fully commit to investing in the long-term future of all of our nurses and help build a workforce that is fit to deliver a modern health and care system through this new decade and beyond.”

And Maria Moss, the union Unison's north west regional organiser, said today: "The nature of working in the health service puts staff in close proximity to illness and infection. When this is combined with long hours, unsustainable workloads, and high levels of stress due to the tremendous pressure on services, it is little wonder that staff sometimes have to take time off due to sickness.

“In spite of this, it’s clear that stress, anxiety and depression are the primary causes of both short and long term absences at Blackpool Victoria. A damaging cocktail of funding cuts and understaffing has exacerbated this problem, leaving our NHS struggling to cope and having a damaging impact on its devoted workforce.

“Ongoing understaffing means we are more dependent than ever on the goodwill of health workers. Blackpool Victoria NHS Trust must invest in the health of their own staff but the broader problem must be tackling by the Government. There is a staffing and funding crisis within our health service which urgently needs addressing.”

The size of the Vic’s overall workforce increased for the fifth month running in November, which was described by workforce director Jane Meek as “encouraging”.

However, she added: “There are still a significant number of clinical vacancies, which is having a significant impact on the bank/agency spend across the organisation”.

Dozens of people have been offered jobs or are waiting to start, she said, including 68 in the UK and 235 abroad, including in the Philippines, for nursing roles.

Staffing in A&E is understood to have been causing a particular headache. While nurse staffing was covered, there were some inexperienced juniors – and an “increased number of agency staff”.

The trust reported a loss of £5.3 million in November, with a year-to-date loss of £18.6m – around £5m worse than the predicted position.

Key reasons for the dire financial position include “investments to address quality, safety, and regulator concerns, increased nurse agency costs to improve fill rates, increased escalation to meet operation pressures, and CIP [cost improvement programme] being behind budget”, a report by Vic boss Kevin McGee said.

The Vic had budgeted £1.1 million for nursing and midwifery agency staff so far this year, hospital documents added, but actually spent 590 per cent more at £7.8 million.

Agency spending on junior medical staff was £4.7m instead of the budgeted £2.8m, while spending on agency consultants was £4.5m instead of the budgeted £2.7m.

“Agency spend has reduced slightly in November, however this continues to be a real concern and the focus of attention,” Ms Meek said.