Mental illness exacerbates NHS staffing crisis, says union

Mental illness exacerbates NHS staffing crisis, says union

More than three in 10 respondents (31%) to a survey of NHS staff had taken time off work due to mental health issues in the past year.

Published by UNISON on 7 April, the survey asked more than 12,000 NHS healthcare workers about their experiences of with mental illness and stress. The respondents reported problems such as depression, low mood, sleepless nights and flashbacks. They also described physical symptoms of stress such as panic attacks, high blood pressure, chest pains and headaches.

Of those who had taken time off for their mental health, one in five did not tell their employer the real reason for their absence. The most common reason for this was believing that their manager or employer would not be supportive (45%). However, 22% also said they didn’t want their colleagues to know that they had mental health issues.

Less than a quarter (24%) felt they were able to ask their employer for help relating to mental health. Of these, around half said they did not feel supported when disclosing the problem. A health improvement team officer in Scotland said: ‘I suffer sleep deprivation, anxiety and panic attacks. I don’t know who to speak to or trust.’

How can employee mental health be improved?

UNISON said NHS staff feel undervalued and frustrated, with many leaving to find less stressful and higher paid jobs. The majority of respondents (89%) said better pay and recognition would make a difference to their wellbeing. More than 8 in 10 also felt that safer staffing levels would be an improvement. One administrative worker said: ‘I went off sick with stress and high blood pressure due to workload and low staffing.’

Other factors which many said would improve wellbeing were measures to stop bullying and harassment (68%) and a change in working pattern (58%). A lot of respondents were also in favour of specific wellbeing support such as a 24-hour counselling service (51%) or a wellbeing app (49%).

Helga Pile is the head of health at UNISON. She said: ‘Many NHS staff are clearly at their limit. Burnout is a reality in every part of the health service, from hospital wards to ambulance stations. As more staff quit, the pressures increase for those still working in the NHS, and many are struggling to cope.

‘No one should suffer stress-related issues such as panic attacks and chest pains because of their job. Employers must do more to recognise the overwhelming pressures on all NHS staff including healthcare assistants, cleaners and paramedics.

‘The range of support available to workers experiencing mental health issues needs to be reviewed too. Managers must also ensure staffing levels are safe and that employees have regular breaks.’

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