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Soaring absences for staff sickness adding to burden on the NHS, analysis shows

The NHS in England saw 27 million days lost to staff sickness absences in 2022 – equivalent to losing 74,500 full-time staff, including 2,900 doctors and 20,400 nurses, across the year, a new analysis has shown.

The briefing paper published by the Nuffield Trust for the BBC, which analysed NHS Digital staff sickness data, warned the number of staff absences within the health service reached ‘unprecedented and sustained’ highs between January and December 2022.

Staff sickness absences increased by 29% in 2022 compared to 2019, which equalled an average of 17,000 additional staff off sick on each day.

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

‘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’.

He added: ‘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.’

Absences for anxiety, stress and burnout

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, accounting for a quarter of all sick days.

Indeed, this analysis of NHS data adds to a wide pool of evidence that NHS staff are increasingly suffering from work-related stress. In the NHS annual staff survey, over half (57%) of staff reported going into work despite not feeling well.

Latest census data from the Federation of the Royal Colleges of the Physicians in the UK showed that one in five (19%) of consultant physicians are at risk of burnout.

And a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in August 2022 looking at staff retention in the NHS acute sector showed that compared to those that have not had absences, an NHS consultant missing three days of work for mental health reasons is 58% more likely to leave three months later.

Health reasons are increasingly a cause for staff to leave the NHS, with the Nuffield Trust highlighting that the number of NHS staff pointing to health as the reasons for leaving their role has more than tripled in the decade to 2022. This includes an increase of 52% since 2019. 

Importance of health and wellbeing

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 plan outlines a host of measures focusing on training, retention and reform to tackle the issue of understaffing and support the wellbeing of NHS employees, which it hopes will shore up the workforce and reduce absences.

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 NHS absence data analysed by the Nuffield Trust 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.’

A version of this story was originally published by our sister publication Nursing in Practice.