Over-stretched paramedics are taking tens of thousands of days off a year because of stress, as NHS ambulance services struggle to cope with rising numbers of emergency calls.
The number of sick days being taken by paramedics suffering from stress, anxiety or other mental health issues is increasing, new NHS data shows.
The statistics, obtained by the Liberal Democrats, show that across England 35,872 days were lost to mental ill-health during 2013-14, rising to 41,412 in 2015-16. Records for the first nine months of 2016-17 point to an even bigger increase in the total for last year.
The real number is likely to be higher because data from the North West, Yorkshire and South Central ambulance services was not provided.
Paramedics and unions say a toxic mix of staff shortages, overwork, increasing demand and severe budget cuts are exacerbating the already stressful nature of the role.
“Unfortunately, these new findings – disturbing as they are – don’t come as a surprise to Unite,” said Sarah Carpenter, Unite national officer for health.
“We carried a survey recently which showed that 82 per cent of our paramedic members reported suffering from stress in the previous 12 months, at a time when demand for their services is soaring.
“Our ambulance members are in the frontline of delivering care in often traumatic situations and it is little wonder that they are taking time off through stress.”
In a survey of 362 ambulance staff conducted by Unite last year, 89 per cent said morale and motivation at work was falling, with 88 per cent giving the main reason as stress. Ninety-one per cent reported a major increase in workload and 85 per cent said they were working over their contracted hours.
Worst on record
There are concerns that the rise in stress leave is adding to the pressure on ambulance services and contributing to longer response times, which last year where the worst on record.
In the 12 months to August 2016, ambulance crews responded to 3.18m category-A calls, according to NHS statistics. However they missed the eight minute arrival target for 1.1m – around 35 per cent – of the emergencies, including 999 calls for heart attack, stroke and road traffic accident victims.
In a further sign of the crisis facing the NHS, on Friday (March 31) the government scrapped the requirement on hospitals to provide 92 percent of operations within 18 weeks of referral – a move Labour says could be illegal.
Sarah Carpenter said the blame for the crisis across the NHS lay with the government.
“The key factor is the continued chronic underfunding of the NHS in real terms by the Tory government in consecutive spending rounds, while at the same time ministers are demanding £22bn in so-called ‘efficiency savings’ by 2020,” said Carpenter.
“Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has turned complacency into an art form. He continues to utter warm words about hard-pressed NHS staff, while wringing his hands like Pontius Pilate as the crisis mounts. A cash injection in real terms for the NHS is urgently required.”