NHS staff sickness data reveal the toll emotional labour takes on our mental health

Let’s not allow mental health problems to become the new back pain for nurses

Let’s not allow mental health problems to become the new back pain for nurses

Today’s nurses don’t lack the robustness of previous generations, but the pressures
they face are more intense. Picture: Neil O'Connor

It used to be a common complaint among nurses – after years of lifting and bending – that our lower backs suffered. Indeed, my generation of nurses would often shrug off back pain as an ‘occupational hazard’ and find our new friends at yoga classes or the chiropractor.

Hoists, slipmats – such were our dreams made of, and it was ‘1-2-3 and lift’. The expense and nurses lost to illness or disability required a response and duly it was addressed. Now however, we seem to be equally phlegmatic about another consequence of the  intolerable expectations placed upon the NHS staff: namely, poor mental health.

Stress and depression are now dominant causes of NHS staff sickness absence

New figures by NHS Digital reveal that mental health challenges are now the main cause of health-related absences among health service staff in England. A total of 17.7 million days' sick leave were taken between December 2017 and November 2018. Of these, 4.2 million were due to stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. As Nursing Standard’s report notes, this figure is greater than the total for the next two most common reasons for sickness absence combined – musculoskeletal conditions, excluding back problems, and coughs, colds or flu.  

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Physical health problems that were once anticipated and stoically tolerated by nurses because of their duties have now been overtaken by the consequences of emotional labour. Complacency cannot be the appropriate response to such a shocking fact.

What could be behind this emerging trend?

Today’s nurses must deal with greater acuity, scrutiny and expectation

It is not appropriate to suggest today's practitioners are less robust than those who came before. There never was a golden age of supreme beings who populated the profession, whatever anyone might say.

The acuity and complexity of the conditions that patients present with has undoubtedly changed, along with the expectations placed on healthcare staff to manage them. Scrutiny from politicians and the media has never been more present.

On a positive to note, if people are content to disclose mental health difficulties, perhaps the cultural norm of coping at any personal cost has been finally laid to rest.

Give all line managers mental health awareness training

Solutions are unlikely to be quick and will require a concerted response. Potential approaches could include fast-track referrals to psychological interventions, mental health awareness training for all line managers, and mindfulness classes that facilitate a self-care approach, from undergraduate preparation through to continuing professional development.

Next time you look at the maintenance schedule on any piece of equipment in your workplace, maybe just ask whether you take similar care of yourself.

Or do you unconsciously perpetuate the myth of the indestructible nurse?

Ian Hulatt is consultant editor of Mental Health Practice

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