'You can't carry on like this': How mental health leave soared in the NHS

Hospital ward

Mental health leave for NHS staff in Suffolk has rocketed this year and is still increasing - Credit: PA

Burned-out paramedics are taking sick leave for their mental health at twice the rate compared to the peak of the pandemic, figures obtained by this newspaper reveal. 

Mental ill-health among ambulance workers has doubled during Covid, with eight per cent of the workforce off sick, and one in thirteen staff leaving the service, according to a Freedom of Information request. 

Before the beginning of the pandemic around 600 to 700 staff days per month were lost at the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) due to mental ill health.

According to the latest figures that has increased to 879 in April, 1074 in May, 1289 in June and 1361 in July.

Mental health leave has rocketed across the region’s NHS, with GP surgeries also warning staff are at risk of burnout

The figures come on the final day of our week-long investigation, NHS On The Brink, which has explored the state of the region's hospitals, GP surgeries, dental care and ambulance service.

One paramedic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “The figures are only the tip of the iceberg, because it takes a lot to stand up and say ‘I’ve got a mental health issue and I need some time off’ - it’s much easier to say ‘I’ve got diarrhoea’ because that guarantees you at least 48 hours off.

“There’s still a lot of stick around mental health, and people don’t want the person who’s their manager to contact them to talk about it - and a lot of the time the manager is the issue.”

The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust has been rated as Requires Improvement in a shocking

The East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust has been rated as Requires Improvement in a shocking CQC report. Picture: Simon Finlay - Credit: Archant Norfolk

The source, who has worked for EEAST for close to 20 years, said workforce dissatisfaction with management was a major problem.

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“It’s the constant, almost harassment by managers - ‘Why haven’t you done this or done that, why weren’t you out on this job?’

“It’s very impersonal, it‘s done by email, people aren’t working alongside you. 

“No-one asks you ‘how was that job’, or ‘that might have been a hard job for you’, it’s all ‘why weren’t you quick enough?’

“I do think genuinely people are burnt out with it now."

Unison branch secretary at EEAST, Glenn Carrington, warned this week that morale was at "rock bottom". 

EEAST's Unison branch chairman Glenn Carrington

EEAST's Unison branch chairman Glenn Carrington - Credit: Supplied

An ambulance spokesman said they were “committed" to supporting staff and had counsellors, a 24-hour support line and wellbeing hubs to provide “rapid mental health services and support”.

Hundreds of workers quit

At East Suffolk and North Essex Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) more working days were lost in August because of mental ill health than any other month since the pandemic began.

In the first eight months of 2021 there was more sick leave than in the whole of 2019, according to Freedom of Information requests put in by this newspaper.

There was an increase in staff off with mental health issues from 19 in January 2019 to 85 in August this year.

Meanwhile, hundreds of NHS workers have quit with 125 staff nurses resigning from Ipswich and Colchester Hospitals, run by ESNEFT, between 2018 and 2021 giving "other or not known" for their reason for leaving.

At West Suffolk, there has been 210 resignations up to the end of August, compared to 239 last year and 254 in 2019, where the reason given was “unknown”.

Resignations at both hospitals peaked in August this year, the last month figures are available for.

West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds. Photograph Simon Parker

West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Archant

Paul Pearson, Unison branch secretary at West Suffolk Hospital, said: “We are desperately short of staff everywhere you look.

"You cannot carry on like that without some people cracking.”

There are almost 10,000 vacancies across the NHS in the east of England. 

Paul Pearson

Paul Pearson, Unison branch secretary at West Suffolk Hospital - Credit: Archant

But Mr Pearson said it was not the fault of individual hospitals. 

“The hand that all Trusts have been dealt, due to successive years of massive underfunding is really taking its toll,” he warned. 

He said the “biggest investment” had been made trying to help staff at West Suffolk with the recruitment of a wellbeing team. 

“I’m happy with how management has responded to support staff and staff wellbeing,” he said. “Nearly the whole of the executive team has been replaced in the last 18 months.”

A West Suffolk Hospital spokesman said they had funded free sports and gym membership for staff to boost mental and physical wellbeing, with just under half of staff signing up.

They added: “We launched our staff psychology support team during the pandemic to provide individual and team support to staff, in addition to existing occupational health, counselling, and wellbeing services.”

Ipswich and Colchester hospitals have no front line staff refusing to have a Covid vaccine.

A range of measures are underway at Ipswich hospital to reduce waiting lists - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

A spokesman for ESNEFT said: “The wellbeing of our staff is incredibly important to us, and we are committed to helping them through any challenges they’re facing.

“Our wellbeing team, led by clinical psychologists, work closely with teams to identify where staff may need extra help and support, including regular checks on colleagues’ wellbeing and providing additional peer support.

“To make sure staff have the right support while they are off work, all colleagues are also now offered confidential and supportive contact from the Trust’s wellbeing team.”

Read more from our NHS On The Brink series:

Thousands of patients wait more than a year for help

A day in the life at Ipswich's busiest GP surgery

Ambulance service records worst response times

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