Earlier this week Welsh Conservatives revealed the staggering extent to which mental health illness is affecting NHS staff across Wales.
Data released by each of Wales’ seven health boards showed that anxiety, stress, depression and a number of other psychiatric illnesses affected 7,945 NHS staff members in the last year alone. A total of 345,957 days of absence were recorded relating to these illnesses – equivalent to 948 years. A freedom of information request indicated that there were many incidences of repeated absences.
That workers took an average of 46 days leave to recuperate shows a worrying impotence in the health boards’ ability to support their workers with mental health issues to return to work sooner – and to provide them with the support needed to stay well and stay in work.
Long-term sickness absence can be incredibly costly. For the individual, the toll is taken from their health and career, while healthy staff are often left to contend with an increased workload. For health boards, the cost comes in forking out for expensive agency or bank staff to replace absent staff. With an ongoing staffing crisis that shows no signs of abating, it’s clear to me that the Welsh NHS needs to institute a fresh approach to combatting long-term sickness.
There is no such thing as two cultures in our health service. The kinder we are to our staff the more benefits this will confer on our patients. For a couple of years now some NHS England trust boards have implemented a ‘Rapid Access’ system which works to secure rehabilitation and occupational health treatment for NHS employees with a view to facilitating a return to work which is as fast as reasonably possible.
Rapid Access aims to give NHS staff easy and early treatment for the main causes of sickness absence in the NHS, and rehabilitation to help staff stay in work during illness or return to work after illness.
Organisations already using this system have reported a number of benefits. These include a marked reduction in levels of sickness absence delivering savings on sickness costs; considerable reductions in agency staff costs (last year Welsh health boards collectively spent £128,949,313); and improved staff and patient satisfaction survey scores.
Timely intervention also has the added advantage of preventing illnesses from spiralling to an unmanageable state that results in early retirement. Musculoskeletal conditions such as bad backs and hip problems can be career-finishers.
There is a growing body of evidence to support the efficacy of Rapid Access, which at its core recognises an inviolable truth: What’s good for staff is good for patients. I implore health boards to look closely at this evidence and, if they’re as convinced as I am, to take swift steps to embed it into their working culture. I am confident our health service would be far better for it.