Are both members of the public and NHS workers able to take days off work due to mental health related issues?

Since March 2020, people’s mental health has become increasingly worse due to the global pandemic, and as a result, the NHS staff have been put under a massive strain; to help others whilst considering the affect on themselves.

When it comes to mental health, 72 million working days are lost, costing a minimum of £34.9 billion per year, with other research estimating the cost to be as high as £99 billion. MHFA England mental health statistics (2020).  “In 2020, of British adults in employment – a staggering 79% commonly experience work-related stress. Compared to 59% in 2018.” Perkbox The workplace stress survey (2020). Demonstrating work related stress is on the rise, some of this down to the impact of the global pandemic.

The full extent of disruption to NHS workers’ mental health isn’t yet known or understood; the COVIDA Study, run by Dr James Gilleen and a team of consultant psychiatrists, psychologists and data scientists at The University of Roehampton London (2020) found “a quadrupling of the number of staff with high levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD compared to pre Covid. One in three had severe levels of anxiety and depression; and 1 in 7 had high PTSD symptoms – these were highest for ‘frontline’ staff.” CIPD’s research (2021) from the US found “1 in 3 people who have experienced severe COVID-19 symptoms have since developed a neurological or mental health condition,” along with the Office for National Statistics whose research found that “around 1 in 5 (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021; this is more than double than observed before the pandemic (10%).”

In terms of the workplace, after the pandemic, people felt fearful about returning to their job; this is because “some employees are working longer or more irregular hours and many are combining work with other family responsibilities, leading to a poor work-life balance.” Employees have been reporting “reduced motivation, loss of purpose and motivation, anxiety and isolation.” One of the leading mental health charities Mind, found that “more than half of adults (60%) and over two-thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown,” with employees who had been furloughed reporting “a slight decline in their wellbeing compared to others.”

UK Parliament (2020) highlighted that NHS workers have been put under a lot of pressure since the beginning of the pandemic. The focus on this is crucial, as they are the people who are there to support others who are struggling mentally, whilst having to balance their own wellbeing. “Staff have had to balance their personal and professional commitments and values, for example in considering their risk of infection to themselves and their family, alongside their duty to care for patients.” Some NHS staff have even been reassigned new roles in the workplace, with general practitioners and community-based practitioners having to adapt to supporting patients remotely.

“In a survey of over 2,000 staff working in mental health services during the pandemic, over half of those working in community services declared their biggest challenge to be the delivery of care using digital platforms.” Being forced to deal with patients in this way has caused some distress for NHS staff, as they have been forced to “make decisions or take actions that they find morally challenging,” as a result this can contribute to mental health issues including “anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The NHS are able to provide support for those taking time off work due to their mental health, and for those who need advice for returning to work and settling back into their job role again. The NHS advise speaking to a GP before going back to work and organising a meeting with your employer. Employers must also make adjustments for workers with disabilities, or long-term physical or mental conditions.

Rachel Johnson, who lives in Portsmouth and works as a clinical operations manager and specialist occupational health practitioner for the NHS, has dealt with plenty of people struggling mentally and has learnt how to best support them. Her experience in her role gives an important insight into how she has been affected since the pandemic, as well as her colleagues.

In response to “Are you someone who struggles with mental health issues, or do you know or work with someone who does,” Rachel was able to be open and honest, and proceeded to talk about her history of “reoccurring anxiety and depression over many years,” and now suffers with PTSD after a traumatic event. This makes her extremely aware of mental health issues that many people face and admits that there have been times where her struggles have “impacted work quite significantly,” especially over the last 18 months, due to the pandemic and having to continue to work through it. Mrs Johnson admitted there have been times where it “has been a struggle,” even after her implementation of ‘coping techniques’ such as: EMDR, anti-depressants and mindfulness.

This being said, not all NHS staff have felt this way, with the pandemic bringing staff together, especially those working in the community, who have reported “improved work-life balance” due to reduced travel when working from home. This applies to Mrs Johnson’s workplace, with her team having access to a ‘staff support line’ where they help other member of staff, as well as a duty nurse being available in the occupational health department. She believes that her team “are stronger as a result of the pandemic,” but acknowledges that she has seen many people still struggling because of the challenging situation.

Working for the NHS can be ‘A difficult yet rewarding role’, and after starting her work in occupational health 20 years ago, she recognises that her role involves a lot of “problem solving,” by helping employees of the NHS “overcome their barriers,” and “facilitating their work.” After removing herself from her role in the NHS for 13 years, she made her way back mid pandemic, due to her love for her job role and helping people, going so far as to say, “it was the best thing I could’ve done.” It was a time that people needed the support the most, and Mrs Johnson adds that she has seen an increase of people coming to her seeking help again recently, especially after the worry over the ‘third wave’ of Covid-19.

As an occupational health worker, Mrs Johnson feels that her skills are “beneficial to the hospital,” and feels as though she has a certain amount of security in her job role. Even though her department don’t allow days off specifically for mental health, she went on to say that “we do support them to use annual leave if they need a break.” Mrs Johnson has taken days off herself recently as she felt herself becoming overworked and went on to say that her and her colleagues were given a ‘wellbeing day’ by the trust, as well as the usual amount of allotted time that her and her staff would get given.

In addition to this, “there has been a bit more flexibility with allowing people to work from home.” However, this has “had a detrimental effect on some,” with some colleagues needing social interaction to help benefit them mentally.

As Mrs Johnson is in a management role, she is able to support staff who can then speak to the junior staff if they’re struggling psychologically. In her department, the hospital is investing “very heavily in wellbeing initiatives and mental health,” with three mental health nurses in her team, she goes on to stress that this is unusual for such a small trust.

The NHS stress that, People can ask their employer for “flexible hours, support from a colleague in the short or long term, as well as a place you can go for a break when needed.” Not all workplaces allow mental health days off, but Mrs Johnson agrees that they are beneficial, and that there are people who still “don’t believe in mental health problems,” such as depression and anxiety, due to it still being seen as ‘taboo’ in a lot of cultures.

People need to recognise when they need a break from work in order to improve their mental health and Mrs Johnson is grateful for being able to take extra days annual leave when she needs to for this reason.

To widen my research on how NHS workers have been affected, I carried out a poll on Instagram where I asked a few questions. The first question I asked was ‘If you work for the NHS, would you say the pandemic has had an affect on your mental health?’, to which 70% of people answered ‘yes’. To follow on from this question I asked, ‘If yes, have you been able to take days off for your mental health in particular?’, surprisingly 89% of people answered ‘no’ demonstrating the lack of support when it comes to people’s mental health issues and their ability to continue working despite their struggles. The final question which I included, asked ‘Have you found support from a colleague/friend helpful, or a mental health group/charity?’, where 89% of people answered ‘friend’ as opposed to only 11% of people finding a charity helpful. This poll helped to highlight the stress NHS workers have been under due to the pandemic, and how confiding in a friend for support is what people find the most beneficial.

Lynda Lewis, another occupational health specialist practitioner who works within the NHS, had a different perspective to Mrs Johnson, as someone who doesn’t struggle with mental health issues but does feel “A little stressed at times due to the workload,” and finds the stress ‘manageable’. As opposed to Rachel Johnson, Lynda hasn’t “required any days off,” but does know other staff who are struggling now and acknowledges that their department has seen “a big increase in Sickness Absence related to mental health issues,” as well as “many calls from staff who are struggling.”

Even though Lynda doesn’t describe her role as ‘rewarding’ she is mindful of her “colleagues wellbeing and does check how they are doing on a regular basis.” Although Lynda recognises the importance of members of staff being given “an extra day for well-being” she adds that it may also be difficult to “identify those who require extra days off, if for mental health issues only,” instead suggesting everyone should be ‘proactive’ in our approach and look at the “prevention of mental health issues.” Lynda’s view and experience in the field of mental health, begs the question as to whether more could’ve been done since the pandemic to help support one another, and stop the rising amount of mental health issues in the UK.

 Mind’s research in (2020) found out the impact that the coronavirus pandemic was having on people’s mental health. Interestingly, their research found that many people who hadn’t suffered with any sort of mental health issues before lockdown saw their mental health and wellbeing decline. “I normally have very good mental health… over the past month I’ve become more anxious about all sorts of things and also been crying about things, which I don’t normally do.” (Survey participant, adult). Even though people who don’t suffer with mental health problems are less affected, 22% of young people and adults who have not experienced mental health problems prior to the pandemic said that their mental health was poor or very poor during lockdown.

In April 2021 their research was followed up by a survey which they launched to find out how people with mental health problems are “feeling and coping now.” They found that “around a third of adults and young people said their mental health has got much worse since March 2020. One person said, “Since March 2020 my mental health deteriorated and by the end of 2020 I was at breaking point once again,” with many people not getting support because they didn’t think their problem was serious enough, and others reporting not feeling comfortable to reach out for support.

 

There is an abundance of mental health support groups on Facebook, lots of them with thousands of members asking for support, and confiding in others to talk about the problems they’re currently facing. It’s important to consider that groups such as these may act as an alternative for people who don’t feel comfortable speaking to a work colleague yet or a member of the NHS for help.

One member who is part of the group ‘Mental Health Support UK’ (wishes to remain anonymous) got in contact with me and was able to share a bit about themselves and how their mental health has been affected due to the pandemic. Their occupation involves working with people who have learning difficulties and how they can support them, and even though this can be a challenging job to work in, they told me that in regards to having time off due to mental health it is “not an excuse in our office… we still get on with it,” and that they have been in hospital a few times, due to their mental health declining since the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this being said, they found support through other friends that they made in their unit; adding that if it wasn’t for the NHS “I wouldn’t be here today.” They agree with the idea that all workplaces should implement days off work to improve your own wellbeing “because you never know what’s going through someone’s head,” expressing that the staff in their workplace are “the worst at supporting staff’s mental health.” These views show both positive and negative things which can affect someone’s mental health and show where there needs to be areas of improvement.

 

It is clear to see that now more than ever people are struggling mentally, even if this is feeling slightly more ‘stressed’ or ‘overwhelmed’ due to an increased amount of work, adjusting to how their role has changed since working from home or feeling increasingly lonely due to the amount of loss the UK has seen, due to the coronavirus pandemic. People are reaching out to others to try and speak about how they are feeling and find ways of combatting their mental health issues; however, it is also important to recognise when people need time off of work for their mental health.

From doing my research into this area, focusing on mental health days, and realising how uncommon this is in the workplace, it has become obvious that mental health is often overlooked as a valid reason for needing time to work on yourself. Some workplaces are beginning to adapt, but there is still a long way to go in terms of identifying the fine line between just needing ‘a sick day’ and a ‘wellbeing day’ (for your mental health), which is starting to be offered in the NHS. This is where the difficulty lies, and people feel as though they must continue working, even if they know their mental health will suffer in the long term. This needs to change.

References:

1)   (2020, October 15th). Mental health statistics. MHFA England.

https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/research-and-evaluation/mental-health-statistics/#anxiety

2)   (2020, October 20th) The 2020 UK workplace stress survey.

https://www.perkbox.com/uk/resources/library/2020-workplace-stress-survey#:~:text=Instead%2C%20the%20number%201%20cause%20of%20work-related%20stress,issue%20for%20HR%20strategies%20in%20the%20coming%20year.

3)  (2020) Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of NHS healthcare workers. University of Roehampton London.

https://www.roehampton.ac.uk/research-centres/centre-for-research-in-psychological-wellbeing/research-projects/impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-the-mental-health-of-nhs-healthcare-workers/

4)  (2021, December 13th) Coronavirus (COVID-19): Mental health support for employees.

https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/supporting-mental-health-workplace-return?fbclid=IwAR0ZiUCWU9X4TKVWnS7cjVR0CdH8ETi0Ry9-43HOSnlh6t-CZq617kg4v-Y#gref

5)  (2020, June) The mental health emergency, how has the coronavirus pandemic impacted our mental health?

https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/5929/the-mental-health-emergency_a4_final.pdf

6)  (2020, October 5th) Mental health impacts of COVID-19 on NHS healthcare staff. UK Parliament.

https://post.parliament.uk/mental-health-impacts-of-covid-19-on-nhs-healthcare-staff/

7)  (2021, March 26th) Returning to work after mental health issues.

https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/advice-for-life-situations-and-events/return-to-work-after-mental-health-issues/

8)  (2021, July) What has the impact of coronavirus been on mental health? https://www.mind.org.uk/coronavirus-we-are-here-for-you/coronavirus-research/

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