Health leaders have warned of a “mass exodus” of NHS workers amid a mental health crisis that has cost the service over £800million.
The problem is so extreme that up to 70% of the NHS working population are considering a career change over the course of the next 12 months, the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus heard on Tuesday.
Staff absences for poor mental health totalled an estimated £805million from January 2020 to June 2021, equating to 3.7million lost working days, according to Steve Carter, director of consulting services at FirstCare .
The biggest reason for absence was non-medical covid-isolation, which lost the NHS 5.8million days over the 18-month period.
The professionals spoke of how staff were suffering with burnout, extreme tiredness, anxiety and “compassion fatigue” - where they felt they had “nothing left to give”.
The cost of staff absences due to mental health is just shy of Covid-confirmed cases, which cost the NHS an estimated £827million and 3.8million working days.
The panel urged the government to act quickly on mental health, warning that failing to tackle the problem could lead to a “mass exodus” that left the NHS unable to cope with the pressure of winter respiratory illnesses.
Stephanie Snow, professor at the university of Manchester and director of NHS voices of covid-19, said staff were feeling “very nervous”,“apprehensive” and “uncertain” about the winter months that lay ahead.
She said the main cause of concern was running normal services alongside the pandemic, as well as longstanding issues such as long waiting lists, the backlog of treatments, pressure on emergency services, workforce shortages and underfunding in mental health.
On top of that was the “trauma” she said many NHS workers were still suffering after working through the peaks of the pandemic.
“They are still suffering with the trauma of the peaks of the pandemic and they’re all very aware that they’re not even through the impact of that,” she said. “The impact is still revealing itself.
“There is a real sense of fear about a mass exodus of health professionals who are leaving because of ill health. They simply can’t face working in healthcare anymore.”
Chartered psychologist Dr Elaine Kinsella explained how the mental health of NHS staff in the UK was worse when compared with Ireland, which she partly attributed to negative feelings towards the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the decision to delay the first lockdown.
“Many are just feeling extremely tired; lethargy, apathy and compassion fatigue are creeping in, and some are closing themselves off from other people, as a means of preventing further distress,” she said.
“We would see these as key psychological markers of burnout, and our data is also showing that sense of meaning in life is decreasing over time.
“Feelings of solidarity with organisations and with colleagues is high, but with governments and with members of the general general public, solidarity is low.
“Many frontline workers are feeling angry at being left exposed to covid with little or no protection often due to insufficient PPE, and also with the recent removal of safeguards.”
Kinsella also cited limited mental health support and long covid, which she said many feared would get worse with the removal of certain protections such as limits on international travel.
Rachel Sumner of the university of Gloucestershire urged Boris Johnson and health secretary Sajid Javid to “set an example” for the public to follow to protect frontline workers.
She said staff she had spoken to said they wanted key public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing to be reinstated “to keep everybody safe”.
“Other than that, lead from the front - demonstrate that this is something we are all in together, set an example for the country or the public for the frontline workers,” she added.
“And look after out frontline workers - they are a very thin line that stand between us and disaster. If we don’t look after them, disaster will come.”