NHS fears ‘mass exodus’ of staff as mental health absences soar in 2021

‘Many say they simply can’t face working in the health service anymore,’ says staff survey expert

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 24 August 2021 19:37 BST
<p>Hospitals are struggling to cope with rising patient demand this summer</p>

Hospitals are struggling to cope with rising patient demand this summer

NHS leaders and experts have warned that the health service is facing a “mass exodus” of staff in the year ahead unless exhausted doctors and nurses struggle are given more support.

It comes as the latest figures show that mental health absences among NHS staff have soared during the spring and early summer – as a growing number suffer from burnout.

There were 13,000 NHS staff off work because of mental health issues in May – a 55 per cent increase on the previous year, according to FirstCare, which monitors absences in the health service. There were another 13,000 absences mental health absences in June – up 42 per cent on last year.

“From April onwards we’ve seen a significant rise in mental health cases, and it shows no sign of stopping,” Steve Carter, director of consulting services at FirstCare, told a panel of MPs and peers on Tuesday. “We need to address the mental health issue quickly if we are to get through the winter.”

Professor Stephanie Snow – co-author of the NHS Voices of Covid-19 project, which asks staff how they are coping during the pandemic – said many were struggling under the strain of ongoing Covid cases and the backlog of treatments for other illnesses.

Prof Snow told MPs and peers on the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus that many doctors and nurses are worried about their colleagues quitting in the months ahead.

“They’re worried about losing more colleagues,” she said. “There is a real sense of fear about a mass exodus of health professionals leaving because of their own ill health – many say they simply can’t face working in the health service anymore.”

Prof Snow said staff were under huge pressure to help get the health service back to normal, while dealing with the “trauma” they experienced the Covid and underlying problems with workforce shortages.

“We’re seeing high levels of burnout, high levels of stress, and it’s starting to manifest into physical symptoms,” said Dr Rachel Sumner, co-author of the Covid-19 Heroes study on the impact of the pandemic on frontline workers.

Dr Sumner added: “Many [NHS staff] are considering leaving – and that would be a true tragedy. Most of them won’t leave during the pandemic because they feel it’s their duty. But this is only going to get worse unless there’s significant work done to sort out the problems. If we don’t look after them, disaster will come.”

A survey of Royal College of Nursing members last month revealed that 36 per cent were thinking of leaving the profession – up from 27 per cent last year.

Factors cited include the way nursing staff have been treated during the Covid pandemic (44 per cent), low staffing levels (43 per cent), and lack of management support (42 per cent).

A British Medical Association survey in May found just over a fifth (21 per cent) of doctors working in the health service said they might leave within the next year.

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told MPs and peers she was worried the most experienced staff in the NHS will leave “sooner than they should” because of current pressures and lack of support.

“Older staff are going to bail out and retire early unless the things they’ve been banging on about are actually addressed. There needs to be a serious look at retention … I’m genuinely not confident there is a plan.”

Rising patient numbers are placing further strain on the NHS, with major hospitals issuing a “black alert” – an emergency warning they are under sever pressure – over bed shortages in recent weeks.

Two major London hospitals told The Independent earlier this month that they had declared “black alert” incidents due to bed shortages, as well as rising numbers of people turning up in A&E.

Hospitals across England have seen record levels of non-Covid patients turning up at A&E, with a lack of intensive care beds meaning routine surgeries, including for some cancer patients, have been cancelled across England.

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