Shropshire Star

Stress taking its toll on community health staff in Shropshire

Stress is taking a huge toll on community health staff in Shropshire and leaders 'could and should' do more about it, claim health campaigners.

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Latest NHS Digital figures show there were 2,200 days lost due to staff absences in Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust in February.

Of the days lost, 879 were due to anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illnesses, the numbers show.

It accounted for 40 per cent of staff sick days and was the most reported reason for sickness.

It was up from 33 per cent in February the year before, and was an increase from 30 per cent in 2019, before the pandemic.

The King's Fund, a health think tank, said the rate of two in every five sick days on stress-related absences is a "wake up call" for the NHS to address excessive workloads on staff.

Comparing ShropCom with England reveals that the 40 per cent rate in Shropshire compares with 26 per cent of all sickness absences across the country in February.

Across England, anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses accounted for over 545,100 days lost. It was also up from 25 per cent the year before and a jump from 23 per cent in 2019.

Gill George, who chairs Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Defend Our NHS said she didn't think there's "anything particularly surprising about this.

"Part of it undoubtedly relates to the exhaustion and burnout experienced by so many NHS staff now.

"The NHS is under-resourced and understaffed. That's bad across the country, but a particular issue in rural areas and areas with older populations because the NHS funding allocations system just doesn't work well for us.

"Maybe the new government can sort out some of this."

'Something else going on'

But as well as the broad brush issues, Ms George said she thinks there's "something else going on as well though, and that's the stuff that good NHS leaders can sort out.

"The 'soft stuff' can make the difference between people staying well or getting sick with stress, or even between leaving or staying in a job.

"That's about staff being involved and listened to, and knowing they can raise concerns safely."

She added: "It's about flexible working, opportunities for staff to learn and develop instead of leaping from crisis to crisis, and a culture where patients and staff are always treated with respect and compassion.

"It's also about being red hot on dealing with racism in NHS workplaces, and our local NHS organisations need to shift gears there.

"On all these things, Shropshire's NHS - including Shropshire Community Trust - could and should do more."

'Another wake up call'

Alex Baylis, the King's Fund assistant director of policy, said: "This is just another wake up call to the NHS, because we are seeing exactly the same sort of trends when you look at reasons for people leaving the NHS."

He said the normalisation of "chronic excessive workloads" on staff is the main driver in the high levels of stress-related sick absences.

He added: "So, what we think is important is not just focusing on supporting individuals but looking at what these systemic, underlying drivers of these levels of stress and burnout.

"That means really listening to staff and being prepared to put in place fundamental changes where needed to address this, rather than normalise it and carrying on with these constant warning signs we are getting."

The figures also show the overall sickness absence rate for England was 5 per cent. At Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust, the absence rate was also 5 per cent.

The Nuffield Trust said high sickness absence is detrimental to staff and patient care.

'The NHS has a duty of care to its workforce'

Billy Palmer, Nuffield Trust senior fellow, said: "The NHS has a duty of care to its workforce, and this high level of stress among staff also points to some troubling future retention issues.

"Given high sickness absence levels and poor retention are both causes of and caused by increased pressure of services, the NHS risks being stuck in a vicious cycle."

He added absence rates relate to factors including job satisfaction, workload and socioeconomic status, so multiple solutions will be needed to solve the levels of sickness absence.

An NHS spokesperson said mental health support is available for staff, including access to 24/7 confidential support services, coaching, and flexible working options.

They added "there is more to do" to ensure NHS staff feel comfortable asking for help.

"That is why the NHS is strengthening our occupational health services and reviewing our mental health offer for staff to ensure everyone working in the NHS has the right support they need," they said.

A spokesperson for Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust (ShropCom) said they recognised the stress staff are under.

“We recognise that in the current climate our staff face a number of stressors both in and outside of work," the spokesperson said.

"We have a wealth of wellbeing support in place available to all staff, and regularly review this to ensure that our wellbeing offering can continue to support staff both inside and outside of the workplace.”

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