Tackling Sickness Absence in the NHS: The Importance of Staff Well-being on Healthcare Delivery

The National Health Service (NHS) in England requires the ability to maintain adequate staffing levels across all professional groups. A crucial aspect of this challenge is managing sickness absence rates among NHS staff, which not only impacts patient care and operational costs but also plays a pivotal role in workforce retention and overall healthcare efficacy. Our recent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine discusses this important challenge for the NHS.

Recent data published by NHS Digital indicates a worrying trend: sickness absence rates have been on a steady rise across all NHS staff groups since 2009, with a notable surge during the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend has resulted in absence rates remaining elevated above pre-pandemic levels, signaling a potential crisis in staffing and healthcare delivery.

The Dynamics of Sickness Absence Rates

Before the pandemic, monthly sickness absence rates typically varied between 4% and 5%, with expected seasonal variations. However, the pandemic era saw these rates spike to around 6%, and even after the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions, they have hovered between 5% and 6%. In comparison, the general UK workforce has exhibited more stable sickness absence rates, with NHS employees displaying approximately double the absence rates of their counterparts in other sectors. This disparity underscores the unique pressures faced by NHS staff, including high-stress environments and demanding physical work conditions.

Mental Health at the Forefront

A significant finding from the NHS England data is the high prevalence of mental ill health, particularly anxiety and depression, as a leading cause of sickness absence among NHS staff. This contrasts with the broader employment landscape, where other illnesses predominate. The data suggests that NHS staff are substantially more likely to take leave for mental health reasons, a situation likely exacerbated by the demanding conditions of NHS work environments.

Variations and Implications for Policy

Sickness absence rates vary across different professional groups within the NHS, with doctors generally showing lower rates than other groups such as nursing, ambulance, and allied health professionals. This variance highlights the need for a nuanced approach to addressing sickness absence, considering factors such as role flexibility, work conditions, and the potential for presenteeism.

Addressing these issues requires more than reactive measures; it demands a proactive strategy that includes improving access to occupational health services, mental health resources, and implementing systemic changes to address the root causes of high sickness absence rates. The NHS workforce plan looks to the national Growing Occupational Health and Wellbeing Strategy for solutions, but there is a clear need for more comprehensive, data-driven approaches that tackle the underlying factors contributing to workforce strain.


Ultimately, understanding and mitigating the reasons behind elevated sickness absence rates – particularly those related to mental health and varying across professional groups – will be crucial for closing the gap between the NHS and the broader UK workforce. This effort will not only enhance workforce well-being but also ensure the sustainability of high-quality healthcare delivery within the NHS.