The number of ambulance staff taking days off work because of mental health problems reached more than 6,000 last year – a third of the total
“Increasingly, crews are having to deal with patients dying before they can reach them. Demand is so high that paramedics have no time between incidents, causing high levels of stress.” Sara Gorton, head of health, Unison
Last year ambulance staff took almost 250,000 sick days as a result of mental ill-health, a freedom of information request by the Liberal Democrats has found.
As a result, ambulance crews are being stretched to breaking point by chronic staff shortages, and ambulance waiting times have hit their worst level on record during winter.
The figures show that in 2022, one in 16 of England’s NHS ambulance workers took time off for conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression – the equivalent of 1,100 staff.
In England, there are 17,447 ambulance workers employed by nine ambulance trusts. Of these, 6,029 took time off for mental health reasons in 2022 – up from 5,126 in 2020 and 5,958 in 2021. The number on long-term mental health sick leave also increased from 904 in 2020 to 1,243 in 2022.
Some trusts fare worse than others. At the South Central Ambulance Service, which covers Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, 32% of staff took at least one day off as a result of mental ill health last year.
The second most badly affected trust was East of England, with 30% of staff taking time off for mental illness. By contrast, the figure was as low as 12% in Yorkshire.
Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, the trade union said that the government’s failure to fund services “has left too few staff and ambulances. Excessively long shifts without proper breaks, and lengthy queueing outside hospitals, are having a negative impact on wellbeing.”
She added: “Increasingly, crews are having to deal with patients dying before they can reach them. Demand is so high that paramedics have no time between incidents, causing high levels of stress.”
Jo Mildenhall, paramedic psychological health manager at the College of Paramedics, said that “increased demand, reduced resources, and queueing at emergency departments” had put ambulance workers under huge stress. She added: “Mental ill health, including burnout, stress, psychological trauma and moral injury, is a rising and significant issue, and without further investment into addressing the causative factors and providing additional interventions and supports, we are likely to see the issue increase further.”
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, said the government had been letting down ambulance crews for too long: “Their poor treatment leads to staff shortages, adding misery to patients waiting for an ambulance.”
One experienced call handler for an ambulance trust in the North of England told the Independent she had been signed off sick for two months after staff shortages and mounting abuse from frustrated 999 callers took their toll. “We were down to minimum staff, the calls were stacking, it got to 6am in the morning and I couldn’t take any more. I’d spent the night and my breaks walking around the car park just crying,” she said.
A surge in demand meant her team was unable to process even the most critical calls in time, despite working flat-out.
“There were people in the queue actively dying – we couldn’t get to them. And it began to feel like it was my fault. It wasn’t my fault, and I know that now because I’ve had counselling, but at that time, and [despite] how many times I’d been shouted at, screamed at, sworn at, threatened, I still had to keep sitting there and doing it over and over again,” she said.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts, said there was increased pressure on ambulance workers: “Anxiety, stress and depression are consistently the top reasons for staff sickness. Employers are trying to support staff wellbeing, but efforts are being undermined by a lack of investment in wellbeing initiatives across the NHS.”
Ambulance crews are now under intolerable pressure, as a result of heavy demand. The stress leads to staff taking time off for mental ill-health, increasing the pressure on remaining staff in a vicious circle. The government has to act to improve resourcing and conditions for ambulance crew. We have now been waiting a very long time for the promised NHS workforce strategy, but it has reached the point where the current situation is unsustainable.