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Anxiety, headaches and chest problems: sharp rise in nurse sickness since COVID-19

Winter well-being campaign aims to encourage staff to prioritise mental and physical health

RCN has launched a winter well-being campaign to encourage staff to prioritise their mental and physical health

Nurses are experiencing more sickness for anxiety, depression, chest, respiratory and headaches than before the pandemic, new analysis reveals.

The NHS in England recorded over 18% more (73,209) sick days among nurses and health visitors in May 2021 compared to May 2019, an investigation by the RCN found.

RCN has launched a winter well-being campaign to encourage staff to prioritise their mental and physical health

Nurses are experiencing more sickness for anxiety, depression, chest, respiratory and headaches than before the pandemic, RCN analysis reveals
Picture: iStock

Nurses are experiencing more sickness for anxiety, depression, chest, respiratory and headaches than before the pandemic, new analysis reveals.

The NHS in England recorded over 18% more (73,209) sick days among nurses and health visitors in May 2021 compared to May 2019, an investigation by the RCN found.

Nurse vacancies likely to pile on more pressure on health and care services this winter

RCN council chair Carol Popplestone called on ministers to prioritise legally accountable safe staffing levels.

‘There will be immense pressure on health and care services this winter and services can’t afford to lose safety-critical professionals to avoidable illnesses on top of tens of thousands of nursing vacancies,' she said.

The RCN is today launching a winter well-being campaign encouraging staff to prioritise their own physical and mental health.

Ms Popplestone urged employers to work with the RCN to ensure eligible staff receive vaccines, have breaks and look after themselves.

London nurse Noeleen Behan said: ‘Staffing is a massive issue so I’m not surprised we’re seeing high sickness rates.

Side effects of stress and anxiety resulting in staff burnout

‘A lot of nurses are very worried about the high demand we’re going to see this winter. People have barely had time to recover and there hasn’t been any break.’

Another nurse from Norfolk said: ‘More of us are having to take sick days due to the side effects of stress and anxiety, which leads to short staffing, which then causes more pressure and burnout of staff. It’s a vicious circle.

‘On an average shift, we can be two registered nurses and a healthcare assistant down.’

An NHS spokesperson said: ‘It’s absolutely crucial that NHS staff receive the support they need as we head into winter, which is why a comprehensive support package is available for all NHS workers, including a confidential helpline and rapid access to mental health services.’

Visit our Well-being centre

NHS nurse sickness at a glance

  • Since May 2019, the number of full-time equivalent days lost for mental health reasons has increased by 31.4%, from 102,491 in 2019 to 134,669 in 2021
  • Days lost due to chest and respiratory problems rose by 52.5% (from 10,949 to 16,696) and headaches or migraine rose by 51.9% (from 9,105 to 13,833)
  • Anxiety, stress or depression remains the most common reason for staff sickness. As a proportion of all days lost, this has increased by 3.3% throughout the pandemic, from 25.5% in 2020 to 28.3% in 2021
  • On average, at least 5% of all nurses and health visitors were absent through sickness in January for the past five years, but last January (2021) almost 7% were ill

Source: NHS Sickness Absence Rates

Find out more

NHS England – Wellbeing Support Options


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