Chart of the week: The rise, fall and rise again of NHS staff sickness absences

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. With staff absences in the NHS having been in the headlines recently, Billy Palmer looks at the daily number of staff absent through sickness or self-isolation across NHS acute trusts in England since the start of the pandemic. The numbers are presented as an average across seven days.

Data story

Published: 12/01/2022

There has been much concern, understandably, about NHS workforce absences in recent weeks. Staff sickness presents a problem for the health service, given the potential disruption to provision and management of care to patients, the negative effect on working conditions of those staff who are able to work, and the duty of care for those staff unable to work. There may also be additional costs involved if, for example, agency staff are used to fill shifts. And as Covid rates increase in the population, so will absences.

The chart below shows the daily number of staff absent through sickness or self-isolation across NHS acute trusts in England since March 2020. The numbers are presented as an average across seven days to smooth out for different staffing levels across the days of the week, and are given in relation to the number of staff employed. Given not all staff will be scheduled to work on a given day, even if all absences are recorded this measure will be an underestimate of the proportion of actual shifts affected by sickness or isolation, particularly over the Christmas and new year period when fewer staff are expected to be at work.

In the week to 2 January, the most recent covered by the data, there was an average of eight staff absent daily per 100 employees, which is as high as at any point since the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, having just surpassed levels from January the following year. Earlier in the pandemic, higher absences may have resulted from challenges in obtaining sufficient PPE and fewer staff having immunity from vaccination or prior infection.

As ever, the experiences vary between organisation and regions. For example, London saw an early rise before an apparent plateau, whereas numbers were still accelerating in the North West from a level far above that seen last January.

Policy-makers and service managers will therefore need to keep a close eye on absence levels across the country – including outside of hospitals such as in general practice where data are currently lacking – and act to mitigate any negative consequences for staff and patients.

Number of staff absent through sickness or self-isolation from NHS acute trusts (rolling 7-day average) 12/01/2022

Chart

Note:  

1. Sickness absence data from 22 March 2020 to 2 January 2021, based on data from 137 acute NHS trusts, with East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust excluded due to data quality issues.

2. Figures for March and early April 2020 may be artificially low due to some trusts incorrectly submitting ‘0’ values, although further analysis removing these trusts suggests the first wave peak size is a reasonable estimate.

3. Employee numbers are based on headcount staff levels in September 2021 as opposed to the number of staff due to work on a given day.

Source:  

Nuffield Trust analysis of NHS England and NHS Digital data.

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