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Pandemic takes toll on nursing staff as new analysis shows NHS loses almost a fifth more days to sickness than before COVID-19

Press Release 05/10/2021

  • The NHS in England recorded over 18 per cent more sick days among nurses and health visitors in May 2021 compared to May 2019 
  • Royal College of Nursing launches winter wellbeing campaign to encourage nursing staff to look after themselves to protect patients.   

Nursing staff are more likely to suffer ill health since the COVID-19 pandemic, new analysis from the Royal College of Nursing has found, and this winter may take even more of a toll on their wellbeing.  

The NHS in England recorded over 73,209 more sick days among nurses and health visitors in May 2021 compared to May 2019 – an increase of 18.2 per cent.  

The Royal College of Nursing is launching its winter wellbeing campaign to encourage staff to prioritise their own physical and mental health this winter. 

It comes as nursing staff face a difficult winter, treating the backlog of care, administering an expanded annual influenza programme alongside an ongoing COVID-19 vaccination programme, and seasonal pressures made worse this year by a predicted surge in flu and other infections.  

The RCN’s new analysis shows that staff are more at risk of mental health problems, chest and respiratory problems and migraines than before the pandemic: 

  • Since May 2019 the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) days lost for mental health reasons has increased by 31.4 per cent  
  • Days lost due to chest and respiratory problems rose by 52.5 per cent and headaches or migraine rose by 51.9 per cent 

Anxiety, stress or depression remains the most common reason for staff sickness. 

As a proportion of all days lost, it has increased by 3.3 per cent throughout the pandemic, from 25.5 per cent in 2020 to 28.3 per cent in 2021.  

Mathematical modelling cited by the Joint Committee for Vaccines and Immunisation (JCVI) indicates this year’s flu season could be 50 per cent larger than typically seen particularly after last winter’s flu season was relatively mild due to the social distancing measures introduced during the pandemic.  

With widespread nursing vacancies in the NHS in England, a spike in staff sickness rates could put even more pressure on health and care services this winter. 

On average, at least five per cent of all nurses and health visitors were absent through sickness in January for the past five years, but last January (2021) almost seven per cent of these staff were ill.  

The College is concerned that large-scale sickness absence will expose how short-staffed many services are, and the risk this poses to patient safety as nursing is a safety-critical profession.  

The RCN is calling for ministers to be legally accountable for assessing the workforce requirements of  health and care systems, and for workforce planning and supply.  
RCN Council Chair Carol Popplestone said:  

Even in a climate of widespread staff shortages which governments have refused to acknowledge, there cannot be a stigma against nurses needing time to take stock. Without challenging it, we don’t just lose nursing staff for a few days, we lose them forever.  

There will be immense pressure on health and care services this winter and services can’t afford to lose safety-critical professionals to avoidable illnesses on top of tens of thousands of nursing vacancies. The risk to our patients is too high to do nothing.  

We want employers to work with us to make sure staff can get the vaccines they’re eligible for, are rested and have breaks, and look after themselves so they can look after patients better.  


  • The RCN analysed  NHS Sickness Absence Rates for May 2019, May 2020 and May 2021. 
  • Of the 10,092,468 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) days available in May 2021, 475,794 were lost to sickness. Of the 9,377,050 FTE days available in May 2019, 402,585 were lost to sickness. This is a difference of 73,209 or 18.2 per cent
  • Since May 2019, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) days lost for mental health reasons has increased by 31.4 per cent, from 102,491 in 2019 to 134,669 in 2021 
  • Days lost due to chest and respiratory problems rose by 52.5 per cent- from 10,949 in 2019 to 16,696 in 2021, and headaches or migraine rose by 51.9 per cent, from 9,105 in 2019 to 13,833 in 2021  
  • See attached analysis for average sickness absence rates and more information 
  • “Seasonal influenza and COVID-19 viruses have the potential to add substantially to the winter pressures usually faced by the NHS, particularly if infection waves from both viruses coincide. The timing and magnitude of potential influenza and COVID-19 infection waves for winter 2021 to 2022 are currently unknown, but mathematical modelling indicates the 2021 to 2022 influenza season in the UKcould be up to 50% larger than typically seen and it is also possible that the 2021 to 2022 influenza season will begin earlier than usual." - GOV.UK letter 

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