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Laurence Hodge: The NHS encounters a new epidemic. Lead-swinging among its million-plus staff

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I hope you’re not feeling stressed today because if you are what follows may not help.

Earlier this week, the BBC revealed that under a Freedom of Information request it had learned that NHS mental health absences had doubled in four years and that in 2014, 41,112 staff had been absent due to stress, anxiety and depression.

Sound like a lot?  Well for the sake of perspective this amounts to 3 per cent  of the workforce, which probably is a fair old few.

In order to discuss these numbers the Today programme on Tuesday put up the NHS Employers boss, Danny Mortimer, and the boss of the Royal College of Nursing, Peter Carter.

Mortimer, for the employers celebrated (and I use the word advisedly) that the NHS had succeeded in eradicating the stigma for its own employees to report a mental health problem.  Working with people who are acutely ill and dying is stressful, he told us.

Carter for the RCN, on the other hand, declared himself depressed at having to discuss statistics so perhaps to avoid becoming a statistic himself, he should avoid doing interviews about statistics.  Nevertheless he soldiered on bravely to talk predictably about cuts and targets and we’ll leave him there because there’s not much more to say about him, other than that he was doing his job.

Now, we can pretty much agree that being around very sick and dying people is not an unalloyed joy but visit any slaughterhouse and you’ll see lots of people going about their work in a perfectly matter of fact way, a bit like accountants, really, but in stained overalls and white wellies.  So it’s probably not the fact of death that is crucial here.  If your job – vocation even – is to care for the sick then surely there must be satisfaction in giving comfort and care to suffering or terminally ill people.  In fact it’s probably stressful to fail to do so.

Sick and dying people have always been a bit of a feature of the human condition and what’s more they have always tended to cluster in hospitals so how come this sudden doubling in NHS staff suffering stress and depression?

The NHS has of course gained a reputation here and there for putting a bit of a spring in the step of the Grim Reaper so this might raise the levels of stress and depression amongst those – and it’s a big majority no doubt – who prefer to see patients leave under their own propulsion rather than in a box.

The thing is that Danny Mortimer and Peter Carter don’t represent the spectrum of opinion and there is another point of view.  Aren’t the more interesting questions the ones that weren’t asked, namely how many of the 41,112 NHS staff had more than three consecutive days away from work and how many of them needed medical or psychiatric advice or treatment?

Humans are depressingly like lab rats in that we respond to stimuli and incentives and if ‘stress’ or ‘depression’ can now pass as the basis of a “sickie”, how much more convenient to plump for this as an excuse rather than something which has visible or audible symptoms that should be seen to linger as you struggle back to work.

If 3 per cent of staff were off work by reason of stress, what proportion of them was self-declared and only for a couple of days at a time?  The BBC investigation is silent on this and appears to be so superficial that one has to marvel at its flagrant ineptitude or wonder whether the agenda all along was to demonstrate how caring the employer is and how put-upon the employee.  Yah boo, nasty Tories!

There’s always a corral of elephants in Lord Hall’s room but in this instance our tusker is characterised by the limit and hence political bias of the BBC’s own FoI.  Who, out of 41,112 individuals, needed medical or psychiatric help because these people are the ones who are genuinely unwell.  Mortimer didn’t acknowledge that their poor mental health could, of course, be entirely unconnected with their jobs.

Danny Mortimer would be a shoo-in for a chair in Skiving Sciences at some new seat of learning thanks to his apparent willingness to wink at possibly wide-scale shirking by employees who develop a disinclination to cope with the intrinsic features of their jobs.  The days directly lost to the taxpayer must amount to several millions of pounds with probably several millions more down the drain because of the knock-on effect of cancelled procedures, agency hires and administrative costs.

Should we adopt a new syndrome with a Latin handle, plumbopendentism, for folk with a predisposition to swing the lead?

No doubt, genuine sufferers of mental illness whether in the NHS or elsewhere deserve understanding and sympathy but the BBC, the NHS employers and the Royal College of Nursing have done nothing to help us understand the real scope of the problem, if problem there is.

We know no more today about the true extent of stress in the NHS than we know about the impact of nut allergies on combatants during the Hundred Years War.

We might not want to impose on the NHS the complete personnel policies of some of the world’s other major employers – the People’s Liberation Army (larger than the NHS with a 2013 headcount of 2.3 million, according to the BBC) or the Indian Railways (smaller than the NHS at 1.4 million).  But we can be reasonably confident that the Chinese military and the Indian trains manage to cope without an apologist for scrimshankers backed up by a state sponsored broadcaster.

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Laurence Hodge
Laurence Hodge is a regular contributor to The Conservative Woman

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