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Staff shortages are putting nurses under pressure to work while they are sick, says RCN

NHS sickness absence figures are distorted by 'high levels of presenteeism', RCN claims

NHS sickness absence figures are distorted by 'high levels of presenteeism', RCN claims


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Nurses are working while sick due to pressure caused by staff shortages, the RCN said.

The latest NHS Digital sickness absence data for the NHS in England shows nurses, midwives and health visitors lost 5,255,114 of the 116,394,066 full-time equivalent days, a calculation in which NHS Digital includes non-working days, in 2017-18. 

However, the RCN believes the figure would be even higher if ‘high levels of presenteeism’ turned into actual cases of sickness absence.

Pressure to work

RCN national officer Kim Sunley said: 'The NHS Staff Survey 2017 results show that 58% of surveyed registered nurses and midwives had attended work despite not feeling well enough to perform their duties.

‘It is a sad reflection of chronic nursing shortages that nurses feel pressured to work even when they are feeling ill’

Kim Sunley, RCN

‘High levels of presenteeism in the profession are potentially masking further cases of sickness absence. It is a sad reflection of the chronic nursing shortages across the country that nurses feel pressured to work even when they are feeling ill.’

NHS Employers said working while unwell is 'not usually' the result of managers exerting pressure on staff.

Absence rate

Office for National Statistics figures published this week show the sickness absence rate for the whole UK workforce fell to a record low in 2017.

In contrast, NHS Digital’s data reveals the rate among all employees in the health service rose for a third year. The overall sickness absence rate for health service employees in England stands at 4.19%, up from 4.15% in 2015-16.

The highest rate is in north west England, where it was 4.82% in 2017-18. North west London has the lowest rate, at 3.35%.

Incredible commitment

NHS Employers spokesperson said: ‘We recognise there are severe staff shortages and that high sickness absence rates add to the pressure experienced by the current workforce.

‘Presenteeism is a big issue, and while this is not usually the result of managers putting pressure on staff, it does reflect pressures on the system and the incredible commitment of staff.

‘NHS organisations take the physical, emotional and mental health of their workforce very seriously.’


Related material

NHS sickness absence rates – January-March 2018 and annual summary 2009-10 to 2017-18


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