NHS staff sick days "affecting patient care"

LONDON (Reuters) - High rates of illness among National Health Service workers is affecting patient care, with staff taking far more sick days than private-sector employees, according to a government-commissioned report on Wednesday.

A zoomed file image shows doctors performing surgery August 15, 2003. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

NHS staff take an average of 10.7 days off sick a year, the study by occupational health expert Steve Boorman said, more than the 9.7-day average in the public sector and the annual 6.4 days found in private companies.

The levels of sickness mean 10.3 million working days are lost in the NHS in England each year, equivalent to 45,000 staff calling in sick every day.

The NHS is rare among public bodies in operating services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and its work is often physically and psychologically demanding, the report acknowledged.

But it said reducing NHS absence levels by a third, in line with results achieved in other organisations, would bring savings of over half a billion pounds a year, as well as benefiting patients.

“Most staff believe that their state of health affects patient care,” it said.

Nearly half of the NHS absences among its 1.4 million workers was due to musculoskeletal problems, with more than a quarter down to stress, depression and anxiety.

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More than one in five NHS workers smokes, while only around half exercise the recommended three days or more a week.

Boorman was asked to conduct the survey of 11,000 NHS staff as part of reforms lead by surgeon and former health minister Lord Darzi.

Darzi said when he stood down as a minister in July that improving the health of NHS staff was part of his “unfinished business.”

He wanted NHS workers to become “health ambassadors” and drive improvements in public health by their own example.

Darzi’s message was echoed by Boorman, who said the NHS should put staff health at the heart of how it operates.

“It is ironic that the NHS is trying to focus on the public health agenda yet not making it available to its own staff, because staff should be exemplars,” he told the Times.

“The key finding of this review is that health and wellbeing of staff is very important to the quality of patient care, and there are good reasons for prioritising investment in it.”

Health union Unison said the report should not be used as a stick to beat NHS staff.

“You cannot compare sickness rates in the NHS with those in the general population -- it’s like trying to compare apples and oranges,” said the union’s head of health Karen Jennings.

“Working in the NHS is physically and mentally demanding and back injuries, needlestick injuries and cross-infections all take a toll on workers’ health.”

Editing by Steve Addison