Nurse burnout: NHS sickness absence points to staff’s struggles
Nurses are crying out for action to prevent them from reaching breaking point in the first place – not measures to help them be more resilient, union claims
Nurses are struggling under the weight of rising patient demand and staff vacancies, putting care at risk, health leaders say.
The RCN said nurses are physically and emotionally exhausted, resulting in mental health becoming the most common reason for sickness absence in the health service.
Latest figures published by NHS England revealed poor mental health remained the leading cause of staff sickness absences. In February 2023, 25% of all NHS staff sick days were attributed to anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health conditions. For nurses and health visitors, the figure was 23%.
Nurses don’t need more coping mechanisms
RCN director for England Patricia Marquis said greater efforts need to be made to prevent burnout among nursing staff.
‘Recent NHS England data show staff sickness has reached record levels. When staff are physically and emotionally exhausted, patient care is at risk. Rather than putting in coping mechanisms and teaching staff to become more resilient, greater efforts need to be put into preventing staff from becoming burnt-out in the first place.’
She added the 40,000 current nursing vacancies in the NHS in England and a growing number of patients were leaving nurses exhausted and burnt out.
NHS sickness absence is unprecedented
According to new analysis by the Nuffield Trust, there was an ‘unprecedented and sustained’ high level of sickness absence in the NHS in England between January and December 2022, with absence rates greater now than before the pandemic.
The analysis showed sickness absence was running at an average 5.6% in England’s NHS in 2022, compared to 4.3% in 2019. For nurses and health visitors, that figure went from more than 4% in 2019 to 6% in 2022.
The reported level of sickness absence in 2022 – around 27 million days – equated, on average, to around 20,400 full-time equivalent nurses not working for that year.
High sickness rates are also costing the health service millions. The Nuffield Trust said around 16% of use of bank and agency nurses and midwives was to cover long-term sickness, equating to £130 million in 2020-21.
Nurses among NHS staff groups most at risk of burnout
A report by the Society of Occupational Medicine found more could be done to prevent burnout across the health service.
It called for initiatives to ensure workloads are manageable, and adequate support is available, alongside better support to help staff cope with stress.
Report author Gail Kinman said: ‘We know doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are more likely than most to experience burnout and therefore it is vitally important we take urgent action.’
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