An alarming number of medics at Blackpool Victoria Hospital are having to take time off work due to mental health issues, leading to concern from unions that our NHS heroes are cracking under the pressure.
More than 100,000 days were lost due to illness last year, an investigation found, and a third of them related to anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health conditions.
An average of around one in 20 NHS workers were off poorly at any one time, with union chiefs voicing their concern at the huge uptick in doctors and nurses feeling too unwell to care for patients.
Maggy Heaton, chairman of the Lancashire West branch of the Royal College of Nursing and union rep at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The resilience is running low, to be quite honest. Staff are burnt out before they even start their shifts.”
Ms Heaton said nurses are routinely working over 13 hour shifts, skipping breaks, and working late to cover absent colleagues and 250 nursing vacancies in Blackpool alone, and said staff are regularly feeling under the cosh. But she is hopeful an overhaul at the top will bring positive change.
The trust is searching for a long-term replacement for retired chief executive Wendy Swift, who left earlier this year, with Kevin McGee, chief executive at the East Lancashire Hospital NHS Trust, in temporary charge on a job-sharing basis.
Kevin Moynes recently joined as director of human resources, also on a job-share with the East Lancashire trust, and has replaced Nicky Ingham, who left in 2017. And Peter Murphy has replaced Marie Thompson to become the interim director of nursing and quality.
“I honestly feel that changes are coming with the new regime we are getting,” Ms Heaton said. “They are looking at how they can make it better for the staff.”
While staffing levels at the trust rose from around 6,400 in 2014/15 to around 7,000 last year, the number of days being missed due to sickness has more than doubled, from 46,000 in 2014/15 to 103,000 last year.
At the same time, the number of mental health-related absences has almost quadrupled, from 8,900 to 31,000, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act showed. The overall sickness rate has risen from 4.39 per cent to 4.9 per cent.
Nationally, stress is thought to account for around 30 per cent of all sick days within the NHS, the health service estimated, costing it around £300- to £400m a year.
Almost 40 per cent of staff responding to a staff survey at the Vic last year said they had felt “unwell as a result of work-related stress”.
Those aged 41 to 50 were most likely to have suffered, and those older than 66 the least likely.
In a statement, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals said: “There has been an increase in the sickness absence rates within the NHS both locally and nationally.
“Staff health and well-being is high up on the NHS agenda with agreements being put in place to ensure adequate access to rest facilities, flexible working and additional support to address mental health.
“At the trust, we take staff well-being exceedingly seriously and we are working with our BMA local and regional representatives to address any concerns they may have.
“The trust’s average medical and dental sickness absence this year to date is 1.62 per cent. Measures have been put in place to support our staff’s health and well-being.”
Amy Barringer, the union Unison’s health boss in the north west, said: “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.
“It’s important that our health workers are supported to stay healthy by their employers. For example, through providing fast track help for musco-skeletal conditions and effective well-being services. It is a false economy for NHS organisations not to invest in the health of their staff.
“The increasing rates of staff sickness in parts of the north west may in part reflect high levels of ill-health amongst the working age population in many of our communities.
“Another factor might be that local government funding cuts have been particularly severe in the north west.
“This has led to cuts in social care services, increased demands on the NHS, and a knock-on effect on the workloads and stress felt by NHS staff.
“There is an urgent need for proper investment in NHS and social care services, not least to ensure that staff on the front line are not paying the price of under-investment with their own health.”
And Estephanie Dunn, the regional director for the Royal College of Nursing in the north west said the union is “concerned” by the figures relating to stress.
She said: “Workload and staffing levels have been cited as the primary causes of stress among the nursing workforce, standing in the way of them doing their job to the standard they would like.
“With around 40,000 vacant nursing posts, more than 5,000 of these in the north west, the health and social care sector is facing unprecedented pressures including the uncertain future for the EU workforce and the scrapping of the bursary.
“This is affecting the ability to recruit and retain adequate numbers of nurses.
“The impact on the health and well-being is staff demonstrates why it is essential to have enough nurses with the right skills and the Government needs to invest the money it needs to support student nurses to enter and remain in the profession, keep patients and staff safe with all of the services we provide to our communities staffed at the right level.”