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Bury St Edmunds West Suffolk Hospital trust sees thousands of work days lost due to stress and anxiety, figures reveal



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Thousands of working days are being lost at a hospital trust due to staff suffering from stress, anxiety and depression.

The ‘sobering’ figures, revealed following a Freedom of Information request to West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, offer an indication of the workforce pressures many healthcare professionals are facing, with some on the verge of burn out, in the aftermath of the pandemic.

A watchdog has called for greater support for staff who are struggling and noted that the issue of ‘stretched and overworked’ staff is impacting on the quality of care.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed the amount of full time equivalent days absence between 2018 to 2022 due to stress, anxiety and depression at the NHS trust which runs West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds
A Freedom of Information request has revealed the amount of full time equivalent days absence between 2018 to 2022 due to stress, anxiety and depression at the NHS trust which runs West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds

Last year, 12,669.75 full-time equivalent days absence due to stress, anxiety and depression were recorded across the trust’s sites compared to 7,444.44 in 2018.

Already, there have been 7,295.48 so far this year up to June 22.

At West Suffolk Hospital, in Bury St Edmunds, alone there were 11,102.53 days absent last year compared to 6,114.03 in 2018.

Newmarket Community Hospital had 274.21 last year and 121.84 four years ago.

The trust said that to put the figures into context for overall absence rates, the total percentage absent for stress was 0.61 per cent in 2018, 0.72 in 2019, 0.83 in 2020, 0.84 last year and 0.95 so far this year.

Chief executive Craig Black said supporting staff with their health and wellbeing was of ‘critical importance’ and they had ‘developed an excellent package’ of measures.

The NHS workers union UNISON felt the figures made for ‘sobering reading’ but it was ‘no great surprise that growing numbers of healthcare staff are too burnt out to work’.

West Suffolk Hospital recorded 11,102.53 full time equivalent days absence last year due to staff struggling with the issues. Picture: istock
West Suffolk Hospital recorded 11,102.53 full time equivalent days absence last year due to staff struggling with the issues. Picture: istock

Each fresh wave of the pandemic brought more strife, said Leon Kilbourn, Eastern regional organiser for the union.

He noted that staff were expected to work through a huge backlog without the numbers to do it.

Vacancy rates were running at more than 10 per cent and there were more than 100 unfilled nursing posts at West Suffolk Hospital with remaining staff left to ‘pick up the slack’.

“And, outside of work, NHS staff are feeling the pressure too, with spiralling fuel and food costs making it hard to make ends meet and still no indication when they’ll get a pay rise,” said Mr Kilbourn.

“The trust has a number of wellbeing initiatives and staff benefits which are valued, but they’re drops in the ocean when it comes to the problems NHS workers face.

“The real way to help staff is to show they’re valued with a proper pay rise.”

The statistics also show that Sudbury Community Health Centre saw 256 full time equivalent days absence in 2021 with 90.60 in 2018.

Haverhill Health Centre had 73.80 so far this year, 1.26 last year and its highest was in 2019 with 335.30.

Meanwhile, Mildenhall Hub had 127.80 last year, with 21 in 2020 and 50.50 in 2019.

Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said people had observed how staff 'appear stretched and overworked'
Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said people had observed how staff 'appear stretched and overworked'

Healthwatch Suffolk, which uses feedback on NHS services to help shape and improve care, called for cultural changes to offer a helping hand to staff.

Chief executive Andy Yacoub said: “For services to work well for those who need them, we must also look after those who care for us.

“We know from the feedback people share with us that workforce pressures within the NHS are impacting upon people’s experiences – and it is a significant contributor to where standards of care have fallen.

“People have observed how staff appear stretched, and overworked, and how that has impacted upon their quality of care.

“We have seen how people are struggling to obtain appointments at their GP practice, and the stress this can cause families."

On the figures, he argued they were not surprising given the absences brought by the pandemic and the significant pressures staff were working under across all services.

Despite the pressures staff faced, people often praised their caring attitudes to Healthwatch and such comments had been used by services to ‘boost the morale of tired NHS workers across Suffolk’.

“There are many factors affecting workforce pressures in the NHS,” said Mr Yacoub.

“That includes Covid absences, cultural concerns within services, longstanding problems with filling specialist vacancies, and many other issues. It is incumbent upon leaders across our health and social care systems to develop workforce plans that address all these factors, and that help staff to feel supported, valued, and safe.”

Newmarket Community Hospital had 274.21 last year and 121.84 four years ago
Newmarket Community Hospital had 274.21 last year and 121.84 four years ago

Suffolk Mind runs the Norfolk and Suffolk Covid-19 support service with Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, which is responsible for mental health services, for health and care staff to help them cope with the pressures of working during the pandemic.

CEO Jon Neal urged employers to consider and develop an environment to meet the emotional needs of their staff.

He said: “Our research shows that people working in healthcare saw a significant decrease in wellbeing, with many not meeting their emotional needs, which can cause stress.

“Staff working in any part of the healthcare system should be able to access support when they need it. We rely on them to keep us well as a population, so we need to support NHS workers to stay well themselves.”

Craig Black, chief executive of West Suffolk Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said they had set up an 'excellent package of measures' to help staff. Picture: West Suffolk Hospital
Craig Black, chief executive of West Suffolk Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said they had set up an 'excellent package of measures' to help staff. Picture: West Suffolk Hospital

Last week, the Trust declared a critical internal incident due to 'immense pressure' on its services.

A report to the Trust's board today also confirmed that the number of concerns about the working culture had increased with issues raised including 'staff are broken' and 'people just want to cry'.

Mr Black, of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, said their ‘amazing’ staff worked incredibly hard – never more so than over the last two and a half years through the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic they set up a staff psychology support team made up of clinical psychologists, special therapists and counsellors.

Staff also had free access to Abbeycroft Leisure facilities to help with wellbeing and they continued to recruit to vacant positions at the trust – attracting people locally, nationally and through their international recruitment programme.

He added: “When pressures on the trust, either due to staffing or demand on services, reach a level which may impact our services, we have tried and tested escalation procedures – including using agency and bank staff and cancelling some appointments and operations.”