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Few staff using wellbeing hubs despite rise in sick days

Published on: 3 May 2022

Only 53,500 staff have used a flagship NHS staff wellbeing initiative in its first year of operation, HSJ can reveal, while separate analysis finds mental health sick days have soared in the last five years. 

Figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests reveal the NHS’s staff mental health and wellbeing hubs, set up in February 2021 in response to covid pressures, received 53,549 contacts from NHS and social care staff between then and January 2022.

It is the first time such data has been published and it comes as HSJ’s analysis of separate figures shows mental health sick days taken across acute and specialist NHS trusts have risen sharply in the past five years (see box below). 

The total number accessing the hubs, which is inclusive of social care staff, equates to less than 4 per cent of the NHS workforce as of January 2022

Sean Duggan, mental health chief executive at NHS Confederation, said: “Given what we know about the pandemic and the toll it has paid on NHS staff, I would have expected bigger numbers.

“We need to encourage more people to come forward. To me, this number says we certainly need to sustain the hubs with funding for years to come.”

Mr Duggan called for more investment in the hubs, so good examples of support can be extended across the country.

He added: “It pays off because it will mean then we can lower the sick days taken, and we are more productive.”

Gaps in support

An initial £15m was invested in the hubs when they were launched, while NHS England’s 2022-23 planning guidance stated funding for the hubs should continue “to enable staff access to enhanced occupational health and wellbeing and psychological support”. NHSE also recently published guidance for hub staff aimed at standardising the care offered and improving care delivery. 

However, the current offer across the 41 hubs in England varies. Direct support ranges from a 9am-5pm Monday to Friday service to a callback system within two to three working days – while in some areas a 24/7 counselling line is provided as part of the offer.

Staff working in the South West, for example, can access direct support from five of the area’s six hubs during traditional working hours of 9am-5.30pm or 8am-4pm, from Monday to Friday only.  By contrast, three out of the four hubs in North East and Yorkshire offer direct support for a minimum of seven days a week.

All systems offer a crisis support line, but this is not directly linked to the hubs.

Simon Blake, chief executive at Mental Health First Aid England, which provides mental health training to staff in the hubs and to NHS trusts, said shift workers in particular had reported struggling to access support around their working hours.

He called for more data on the hubs to monitor their effectiveness, and said that while the money invested into the hubs is “brilliant”, major issues remain around staffing numbers, job design, supervision and training.

He added: “It’s so easy to think of mental health as being an individual issue rather than a reflection of a system problem.

“If you combine the 53,500 contacts to the hubs with significant numbers of people leaving the NHS, and the number of sick days identified, what you start getting is a story about not enough being done in terms of prevention, and a system which is under extraordinary pressure.”

Hesitation and a lack of awareness

Neil Greenberg, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said staff have been facing “huge pressures” since the start of the pandemic.

He said: “There is clear demand for mental health hubs and most initial assessments occur within a week, but we need more published data to measure their effectiveness as they have different ways of working and varying staffing profiles. Many workers also still aren’t aware of the hubs or might be hesitant to seek them out.”

He added: “The hubs need to be embedded in the NHS and social care and standardised across England. Staff facing mental health difficulties should be fast tracked to access the vital support they need, when they need it.”

An NHS spokeswoman said: “The pandemic was difficult for everyone in our communities and NHS staff – who pulled out all the stops to vaccinate thousands of people each day, treat thousands of people who are seriously ill with covid as well as delivering routine care – are no different. 

“Staff wellbeing is a top priority for the NHS, which is why significant steps have been taken to support all NHS staff.”

Mental health absences on the rise

Figures supplied by 67 trusts responding to a Freedom of Information request from the Liberal Democrats’ health policy team show staff have taken 8.3 million mental health sick days since 2017.

HSJ’s analysis of the data indicates that, on average, mental health absences went up by 81 per cent across those trusts in the past five years.

Of the 67 trusts that provided data, just two recorded a slight decrease in sick days while the rest increased. Since 2019 – the year before the pandemic – staff absences for mental health reasons increased by an average of 39 per cent.

There were 14 trusts where mental health sick days had doubled in the past five years and five organisations with increases of more than 150 per cent.

However, some of the organisations are significantly smaller than others, accounting for larger percentage increases, and the majority of organisations increased their workforce.

Manchester University FT, one of England’s largest acute trusts with more than 20,000 staff, logged the highest number of sick days with 591,254 in total. It also recorded a 178 per cent increase over five years.

North Bristol Trust, which in comparison employs around 8,000 staff, saw the steepest percentage increase since 2017, up 482 per cent from 26,166 sick days in 2017 to 152,299 in 2021.

An NBT spokeswoman did not give specific reasons for the rise but said it fully recognises the physical and mental exhaustion its staff have faced, and the impact of that on staff absences. She added the trust has a “comprehensive and award-winning” wellbeing programme in place. 

The NHS Confederation’s Sean Duggan said: “The physical pandemic may be abating and beginning to recover, but the mental health pandemic goes on for a few years.

“We’ve got large numbers of vacancies in the NHS so there’s no wonder the number of sick days is going up. That’s why (the staff mental health) hubs are important.”