The sickness absence rate among NHS staff in England hit its highest level in more than a decade during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new data.
The figures, released by NHS Digital, reveal that the monthly sickness rate hit 6.2% in April 2020 – up from 5.4% the month before. This is the highest level recorded in data that goes back to April 2009.
About 2.3m full-time equivalent (FTE) days of work were lost out of a total of nearly 36.6m in April 2020. This compares with 1.4m FTE days lost out of nearly 35m in the same month last year.
The worst-hit region was London, where the sickness rate increased to 7.2%. This compares with a rate of 4% measured in January, when London had the lowest sickness rate of any English region.
NHS Providers said that the pandemic’s peak increased sick leave. The capital was hit hardest in the earlier phases of the UK’s first wave of coronavirus infection, putting severe strain on London hospitals in early April.
South-west England reported the lowest rate of 4.5%. It is the only region in England not to report their highest sickness rate since April 2009.
Ambulance trusts recorded the highest rates of sickness absence, at 7.3%. Even before the pandemic, experts said nine in 10 ambulance staff had experienced stress or poor mental health.
The next worst-hit group were those working for acute trusts, which provide services such as A&E departments, with a sickness absence rate of 6.5%.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: “The percentage of NHS staff who were absent from work in April was 6.2% nationally. However, there was some variation by region and between trusts. This correlates with those areas facing the biggest peaks of the pandemic, such as in London.
“These figures demonstrate just how committed staff have been to taking care of people as well as trusts’ commitment to creating safe environments for their staff and patients in difficult circumstances.”
Anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illnesses was the most reported reason for the leave, at 20.9%
According to NHS Employers, which represents hospitals and other providers of care, stress accounted for a third of sickness absence in the NHS, costing the service over £300m per year.
While there is no specific sickness absence reason for Covid-19 in the data, there were year-on-year increases in sickness absence as a result of chest and respiratory problems; cold, cough and flu; and infectious diseases.
The rate of sickness absences because of chest and respiratory problems was 14.8% in April compared with 3.3% the same month last year. Likewise, infectious diseases rose from 0.5% to 14% of sickness absence, and cold, cough and flu from 6.7% to 14.4.%.
Deakin said: “Looking ahead, we must not underestimate the lasting impact working during Covid-19 will have on NHS staff. Trusts are doing all they can to support staff, including setting up a range of services such as relaxation and wellbeing hubs and safe spaces for staff to spend some time reflecting and accessing emotional support if they need it.
“Additional support for staff will be a long-term requirement, as evidence suggests that staff are more likely to present much later, around two and a half to seven years after experiencing trauma.
“We will need to continue to track the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce to get a good understanding of the impact Covid-19 has had for years to come.”