NHS mental health and Covid-positive absence virtually equal

As mental health issues become the second largest cause of lost working time in the NHS, our Director of Consulting Services, Steve Carter provided expert evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus in preparation for the winter.

The APPG’s aim is “to ensure that lessons are learned from the UK’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak so that the UK’s response and preparedness may be improved in future”, and Steve called upon FirstCare’s extensive data to inform the discussion.

Watch the full hearing below:


The panel discussed the ongoing after-effects and mental health impact of the pandemic, and the worrying potential for a ‘mass exodus’ of NHS staff.

The old adage of “you can’t pour from an empty cup” seems fitting, with many healthcare staff reportedly experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout.

Mental health; the secondary pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, the NHS has lost virtually the same amount of working time to staff mental health issues as to confirmed cases of Covid. This is partly due to the duration of mental health-related absences. Time off for poor mental health is on average three times longer than for Covid-related reasons – almost 20 days, compared to around 6 days respectively.

We conservatively estimate that the cost – factoring in replacement workers and agency fees – exceeds £805m for mental health, compared to £827m for Covid.

Mental health issues still rising

From February to June 2021, there has been a 37% increase in mental health-related absences in the NHS.

While mental health issues account for just 5% of NHS absences during 2021 to date, they represent 17% of the related costs and lost working time.

Comparing recent months with the same time last year, May saw a 55% year-on-year increase in mental health-related absences. In June, the increase was 42%.

What can be done?

Although these figures are stark and sobering, we believe they can be reversed. There are ways to improve wellbeing and increase resilience for NHS Trusts.

During the APPG discussion, Steve highlighted the importance of early-intervention to tackle rising mental health issues. To effect the changes needed, leaders and managers need real-time visibility of their staffing resources, understanding when staff are off, why they are off, and when they are likely to return.

Besides getting people the support they need before troubles worsen, there are other benefits:

  • Quicker response to staffing shortages
  • Reduced agency spend
  • Less reliance on overtime, reducing burnout
  • Better staff performance and morale
  • Better patient care

What are the results?

  • We partnered with an NHS Trust of around 7,000 people in June 2020. Within 10 months, the average duration of mental health-related absences at the Trust had fallen by 73% – a particularly impressive achievement considering their service started mid-pandemic.
  • Within just a year of partnering with FirstCare, absence at The Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (OUH) had fallen by 27.6%. Across 11,800 OUH staff, FirstCare helped to recoup 33,040 working days within 12 months – or the equivalent of returning 144 full-time staff to work.

"The FirstCare service has been invaluable during the COVID crisis at OUH...

As FirstCare operate a 24/7 service, the Trust had real-time absence information which was crucial for speedy decision making. From redeploying staff to making sure essential services were appropriately covered to ensuring absent staff received duty of care calls..."

Rebecca Mawer, Senior HR Business Partner and Attendance Improvement Lead, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Getting involved

FirstCare is proud to be hosting a roundtable at the Health Service Journal Integrated Care Summit this month, to discuss with senior NHS leaders the opportunities that ICS's regional approach holds for improved wellbeing and performance.

Senior NHS healthcare professionals can register for the event here. 

Find out how we can help.

Fill out the form below and one of our team will be in touch to arrange a meeting.

Find out more

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