​More than three in ten (31 per cent) NHS employees have had to take time off work with mental health issues in the past year, according to a UNISON survey published on April 7, 2024.

As the staffing crisis in the health service continues, the union says the findings – based on more than 12,000 health workers across the UK – show the effects of burnout among employees and mean many more could quit altogether.

Panic attacks, high blood pressure, chest pains and headaches are among the physical signs of stress reported by nurses, porters, 999 call handlers and other NHS staff who completed the survey. Some also said they experienced depression, low mood, sleepless nights and flashbacks.

UNISON says workforce pressures are taking a huge toll as staff tackle a waiting list backlog, with many struggling to look after their wellbeing.

Stigma around anxiety and depression is still a major issue for health workers. Of those who were off with mental health problems, one in five did not tell their employer the real cause of their absence.

The main reason for this was they did not feel their manager or employer would be supportive (45 per cent). More than one in five (22 per cent) said they did not want their colleagues to know they had mental health issues.

Almost a quarter (24 per cent) were able to ask their employer for help with their mental health in the previous 18 months. However, nearly half (48 per cent) of those who took this step to share their issues said they did not feel supported.

UNISON says staff feel undervalued and frustrated with many quitting altogether for less stressful jobs that pay more.

The vast majority of those surveyed said better pay and recognition would make a difference to their wellbeing (89 per cent). Safer staffing levels (82 per cent), measures to stop bullying and harassment (68 per cent) and a change in work pattern (58 per cent) also scored highly, along with access to a 24-hour counselling service (51 per cent) and to a wellbeing app (49 per cent).

Helga Pile, UNISON head of health, said, “Many NHS staff are clearly at their limit. Burnout is a reality in every part of the health service, from hospital wards to ambulance stations.

“As more staff quit, the pressures increase for those still working in the NHS, and many are struggling to cope.

“No one should suffer stress-related issues such as panic attacks and chest pains because of their job. Employers must do more to recognise the overwhelming pressures on all NHS staff including healthcare assistants, cleaners and paramedics.

“The range of support available to workers experiencing mental health issues needs to be reviewed too. Managers must also ensure staffing levels are safe and that employees have regular breaks.”