Nearly one in three NHS staff take time off for mental health problems

A survey by Unison found that many staff were experiencing burnout and stress as a result of the staffing crisis

8th April 2024 about a 3 minute read
“I’ve been experiencing stress-related symptoms, headaches, palpitations and chest pain. The level of stress affects my home life as it causes worry and brain fog.” Nurse responding to Unison survey

Nearly a third (31%) of NHS employees have taken time off work in the past year because of mental health problems, a survey has found.

The survey of 12,243 employees carried out by Unison, a trade union, was completed by people with a range of job roles, including nurses, pharmacists, porters, administrative workers and 999 call handlers. It was carried out between 19 February and 8 March this year. The results were published just ahead of Unison’s annual conference.

Respondents reported panic attacks, high blood pressure, chest pains and headaches as some of the physical signs of stress they had experienced.

Unison, the country’s largest trade union, said the results showed the impact of a staffing crisis, with many suffering burnout as staff attempted to tackle the waiting list backlog.

Some respondents to the survey described their experiences, including:

“I went off sick with stress and high blood pressure due to workload and low staffing.” (Admin worker)
“I suffer sleep deprivation, anxiety and panic attacks. I don’t know who to speak to or trust.” (Health improvement team worker)
“I’ve been getting panic attacks, anxiety and started having blood pressure problems.” (Nursing associate)
“I’ve been experiencing stress-related symptoms, headaches, palpitations and chest pain. The level of stress affects my home life as it causes worry and brain fog.” (Nurse)

Managers should ensure staffing levels are ‘safe’

Responding to the survey results, Helga Pile, Unison’s head of health, 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.”

Of staff who took time off, one in five said they did not tell their employer the real reason for their absence, because they did not feel their manager would be supportive. Of those who asked their employer for support, 48% said they did not feel supported.

Unison added that staff felt undervalued and frustrated, with many quitting for less stressful jobs that paid more.

Better pay would improve wellbeing

The vast majority of those surveyed (89%) said that better pay and recognition would make a difference to their wellbeing. Safer staffing levels (82%), measures to stop bullying and harassment (68%) and a change in work pattern (58%) also scored highly, along with access to a 24-hour counselling service (51%) and to a wellbeing app (49%).

The survey also found that one in 10 health care workers reported having experienced sexual harassment. Just over a quarter (27%) of the harassment incidents occurred within the past 12 months and 19% between one and three years ago, while the rest were three or more years ago.

For those workers subjected to harassment, more than half (56%) said incidents involved colleagues, two fifths experienced problems with patients and 16% were caused by managers.

Despite the serious and even criminal nature of some of the incidents, half the staff (51%) hadn’t reported the sexual harassment to their employer. The main reason was a fear of being considered over-sensitive (60%), followed by a lack of trust in the process (53%) and a feeling that their employer would not act on their complaint (48%).

FCC Insight

This Unison survey shows that as many as a third of NHS staff, in roles as diverse as nursing, call handling and portering, have taken time off for mental health problems in the past year. These stark findings will be of concern to government, NHS managers and patients. Stressed-out and overworked staff inevitably leads to poorer quality care – and the recent British Social Attitudes survey has found that only 24% of the public are satisfied with the NHS, the lowest levels since the survey began in 1983. The training and recruitment of staff must now be a priority for government, along with tougher measures to tackle bullying and harassment in the service.