Health workers in the North West are the sickest in the country, according to a new report.
Between July and September last year, NHS staff across the region had the highest average sickness absence rate of 4.66 per cent, according to The NHS Sickness Absence Rates report.
Critics suggest the figures could reflect unsustainable workloads, added to by knock-on stresses of under-pressure social services since severe Government funding cuts.
Others have raised concerns about health Trusts’ “punitive” sickness policies and have called on NHS bosses to ensure staff “are not paying the price of under-investment with their own health.”
The national average sickness rate was 3.98 per cent, with the lowest average 3.08 per cent recorded in North West London.
The figure is worked out using the number of calendar days available and the number of sickness absence days for the number of staff available.
North West sickness figures have historically been the highest in the country since records September 2014, apart from February and April 2015, when the North East was the highest.
Amy Barringer, UNISON North West lead for health said: “The higher rates of staff sickness in the North West may in part reflect high levels of ill-health amongst the working age population in many of our communities. Another factor might be that local government funding cuts have been particularly severe in the North West.
“This has led to cuts in social care services, increased demands on the NHS, and a knock-on effect on the workloads and stress felt by NHS staff.
“There is an urgent need for proper investment in NHS and social care services, not least to ensure that staff on the front line are not paying the price of under investment with their own health.”
She added: “It’s important that our health workers are helped to stay healthy by their employers. For example, through providing fast track help for musco-skeletal conditions and effective wellbeing services. It is a false economy for NHS organisations not to invest in the health of their staff.”
Andrew Ford, health delegate of Unite the Union, does not believe figures in The NHS Sickness Absence Rates report showing the North West as worst are statistically significant, but says mounting pressure on NHS staff is something to be concerned about.
He said: “There is an epidemic of stress and anxiety in NHS staff because of the nature of the job.
“There’s mounting pressure on hospitals, the NHS is picking up a lot of work from social services, there’s vacancy freezes and people are having their support removed.”
He added: “Lots of trusts have punitive sickness policies. So you get people driving into to work, being sick on the hard shoulder, when they really shouldn’t be going in.
“Ambulance staff tend to have a higher percentage of sickness because they’re working long shifts in difficult situations with difficult people.
“Health visitors are facing a lot of pressure too. They’re at the sharp end of dealing with deprivation, and their case studies are meant to be set at 250, but often they’re dealing with 280, 290.”
The report findings reflect concerns about ambulance staff, as among the types of NHS organisations, ambulance trusts had the highest average sickness absence rates with an average of 5.26 per cent.
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundations Trust runs the Royal Preston and Chorley Hospitals.
Karen Swindley, workforce director of the Trust said: “We are continually taking actions to support our staff to stay well and keep healthy.
“We have a comprehensive sickness absence management strategy which is supported by a substantial programme of work to support staff health and well being. Both of these are helping us to reduce sickness levels; in particular we have seen reductions in long term sickness over the last 12 months through greater focus on the earlier provision of support and rehabilitation.
“Our board reviews the sickness absence rate every month, and we produce accessible and current information for every service so they can better understand what’s happening in their area, and take any necessary action.
“We have refreshed our sickness absence management training, and introduced a new sickness management system which makes it easier to track and review any sickness patterns as well as access support.
“We have implemented a range of targeted interventions aimed at supporting staff with musculoskeletal problems. We have invested in improving the overall health and wellbeing of our staff, and have recently opened a health and wellbeing centre that provides a range of classes and workshops such as keep fit, mindfulness, smoking cessation, alternative therapies, and mental wellbeing, and we provide a range of counselling services for staff who are experiencing stress.”