The staff absence rate in the NHS in April 2020 was the highest since records began – 2.1 percentage points higher than the same month last year, and exceeding even winter peaks of sickness absence over the last 11 years.
This is hardly surprising. Many clinicians were exposed to patients with Covid-19 in this period, and those experiencing symptoms of coronavirus were required to self-isolate. There were also significant concerns about staff wellbeing given significant shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE).
Regionally, the pattern largely follows the national picture. Staff in London, who historically have had the lowest rate of sickness absence, saw a 3.9 percentage point increase since the same time last year, and had the highest absence rates in the country. All other regions also experienced large increases in staff absence. The exception was the South West, which also had the lowest number of Covid-19 cases.
The reasons for sickness that were recorded support this – with over 40% of absences in April attributed to either ‘cold, cough or flu’, ‘chest and respiratory problems’ and ‘infectious diseases’. The psychological wellbeing of staff also contributed to high levels of absence: this was the reason for over a fifth of sickness days taken.
The NHS Long Term Plan included an ambition to reduce sickness absence in the NHS to that of the public sector average (2.9% in 2016). As more data emerges on the wellbeing of staff, we must not underestimate the longer-term impacts of Covid-19 on the physical and mental health of the NHS workforce. The NHS People Plan published last month is centred around making the NHS a great place to work, but achieving this will be even more challenging given the pressure on staff and the impact of Covid-19 on health and wellbeing.