We’ve joined professional bodies in health and care in renewing calls on the Government to urgently provide funding for NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs.

The hubs are being forced to close despite NHS staff sickness absence figures showing a worsening mental health crisis in the NHS workforce. 

NHS staff sickness absence figures for November 2022, published by NHS Digital, revealed that anxiety, stress, depression, and other psychiatric illnesses*, continue to be the most reported reason for sickness absence amongst NHS staff. They account for more than 526,900 full-time equivalent staff days lost and 24 per cent of all sickness absence.

A British Psychological Society (BPS) analysis of NHS Digital sickness absence data over the 12 months to October 2022 has revealed nearly a quarter of absences due to sickness (an average of 23 per cent) were due to anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illness.

The data also shows mental health reasons account for 6.2 million full-time equivalent staff days lost between November 2021 and October 2022, with huge cost implications for use of more expensive agency staff.

Mental health hubs

Government funding for 40 NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs, which were launched in February 2021 to give struggling NHS and social care staff rapid access to mental health support from dedicated local mental health services, ended on 31 March.

This has left the workforce without vital support, with four hubs already forced to close and the remaining facing an uncertain future, raising serious concerns for staff wellbeing and patient safety**.

In an open letter to Steve Barclay, the Secretary of State for Health and Care, we’ve joined professional bodies in health and care in calling on the Government to provide a minimum of one year’s transitional ring-fenced funding for NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs, so they can continue as a vital lifeline for NHS and social care staff.

The letter is also signed by the British Psychological Society, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, NHS Providers, the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK and the British Association for Social Workers.

Access to timely mental health support

Martin Bell, our Head of Policy and Public Affairs, said: “The huge pressure that NHS and social care staff are under is having a devastating impact on their physical and mental health.

“It’s vital they have access to timely mental health support from trained therapists. Closing these hubs and denying staff from this crucial intervention will have consequences far beyond individual employees, but will impact health and social care services, patients and families.

“Funding must continue to keep them open as well as addressing wider longer-term issues around adequate investment in the healthcare system and workforce planning and retention.”

Professor Tony Lavender, workforce and training lead for the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology, said: “With a workforce under unprecedented strain, against the backdrop of a staff recruitment and retention crisis which is leading to patients not getting the care and services they need and deserve.  

“Today’s sickness absence statistics continue an alarming trend for high levels of mental distress within the NHS workforce, which is no doubt impacting on patient care and safety.

“The NHS mandate says it will continue to support its workforce, but the message closing the hubs sends to staff is that it is doing anything but. We know social care staff are also having to operate under similar pressures. Staff are in crisis and desperately need psychological support. They are burnt out, exhausted and struggling to cope in a damaging working environment that is harming their health.

“This is unacceptable for both staff and patients, and the government’s refusal to commit to funding the hubs is yet another blow to a workforce already on its knees.”

Vital early help

Research published in the British Medical Journal found that in 2021-22, 60 trusts in England spent more than £800m on temporary staff, and the total spend on bank staffing exceeded £1.7bn.The research concluded that extrapolating these figures to all trusts in England would mean that the total spend on temporary staffing across the NHS in 2021-22 amounted to £8.9bn.

With funding for the NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs costing a fraction of that, at an estimated £40million per year, the hubs provide vital early help for staff struggling with their mental health, in many cases giving them the help they need to continue their important work for patients, and continue to work safely in their jobs.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders tell us that anxiety, stress and depression are consistently the top reasons for staff sickness. These figures confirm this yet again.

“It’s vital that national funding for mental health and wellbeing hubs, which started during the pandemic, remains in place so that we can readily support our staff and protect against burnout and low morale at a time when pressure on the NHS remains high.”

Professor Subodh Dave, Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, added: “If the Government wants to actively grow the NHS workforce there needs to be significant investment and support to retain the current workforce.

“Mental health and wellbeing hubs have provided vital support for staff so far and the Government must provide additional funding so they can continue to help our overstretched workforce.”

* The figures quoted in this article relate to the category defined by NHS Digital as ‘anxiety/stress/depression/other psychiatric illness’.

** An interim report published by HSIB in February identified a strong link between patient safety and NHS staff wellbeing. The HSIB report also highlighted staff concerns that support often came too late, with long waiting lists for care and help.