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Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on sickness absence for mental ill health in National Health Service staff
3 Nov 2021
BMJ OPEN, Vol: 11, ISSN: 2044-6055
van der Plaat DA, Edge R, Coggon D, van Tongeren M, Muiry R, Parsons V, Cullinan P, Madan I
Objective To explore the patterns of sickness absence in National Health Service (NHS) staff attributable to mental ill health during the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic in March–July 2020. Design Case-referent analysis of a secondary dataset. Setting NHS Trusts in England. Participants Pseudonymised data on 959 356 employees who were continuously employed by NHS trusts during 1 January 2019 to 31 July 2020. Main outcome measures Trends in the burden of sickness absence due to mental ill health from 2019 to 2020 according to demographic, regional and occupational characteristics. Results Over the study period, 164 202 new sickness absence episodes for mental ill health were recorded in 12.5% (119 525) of the study sample. There was a spike of sickness absence for mental ill health in March–April 2020 (899 730 days lost) compared with 519 807 days in March–April 2019; the surge was driven by an increase in new episodes of long-term absence and had diminished by May/June 2020. The increase was greatest in those aged >60 years (227%) and among employees of Asian and Black ethnic origin (109%–136%). Among doctors and dentists, the number of days absent declined by 12.7%. The biggest increase was in London (122%) and the smallest in the East Midlands (43.7%); the variation between regions reflected the rates of COVID-19 sickness absence during the same period. Conclusion Although the COVID-19 epidemic led to an increase in sickness absence attributed to mental ill health in NHS staff, this had substantially declined by May/June 2020, corresponding with the decrease in pressures at work as the first wave of the epidemic subsided.