The National Health Service (NHS) in England is facing an unprecedented crisis as staff sickness rates have reached an all-time high, surpassing even the peak years of the pandemic. Startling figures from 2022 reveal an absence rate of 5.6%, equivalent to a staggering loss of nearly 75,000 staff days due to illness. This represents a 29% increase from the rate recorded in 2019.
According to an analysis conducted by the Nuffield Trust, a prominent think tank, mental health problems emerged as the leading cause of staff absences, accounting for nearly a quarter of the recorded cases. The continuous circulation of Covid-19, coupled with the return of influenza last year, resulted in significant rises in illnesses such as colds, coughs, infections, and respiratory issues. In fact, the combined impact of these conditions outweighed the burden of mental health-related absences.
Alarming consequences arise from this escalating trend. The NHS finds itself trapped in an apparently unsustainable cycle of mounting workloads and burnout, leading to staff departures.
Dr Billy Palmer, Senior Fellow at the Nuffield Trust, voiced concerns about the situation, stating, “The health service is grappling with a difficult new normal in terms of staff sickness leave. While recruitment has received significant attention, we urgently need to address the working conditions of existing staff and safeguard them from falling ill.”
Palmer emphasized the importance of tangible support in the forthcoming workforce plan, empowering employers to enhance the overall experience of NHS staff. By breaking the cycle of absenteeism, sickness, and high turnover rates, the service can aim to mitigate the ongoing crisis and ensure the sustainability of the healthcare workforce.
The looming challenge for the NHS lies in finding effective solutions to alleviate the burden on its dedicated staff. Tackling mental health issues, improving working conditions, and prioritizing staff well-being are critical steps towards building a resilient healthcare system that can weather these turbulent times.