NHS staff spent more than five weeks off sick because of drugs and alcohol at Barking, Havering and Redbridge Hospitals

NHS staff struggling with drug and alcohol problems deserve compassionate support like anyone else s

NHS staff struggling with drug and alcohol problems deserve compassionate support like anyone else says NHS England. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

NHS staff at the Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust took more than five weeks’ worth of sick leave because of drug or alcohol abuse last year.

Charity Alcohol Change UK said that heavy drinking or drug use could damage the mental health of NHS staff and impact on their decision-making.

Between December 2017 and November 2018, employees at the Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust were absent from work because of substance abuse for a combined total of 37 days, according to NHS Digital data.

Across England, almost 7,000 full-time days were lost over the same period - the equivalent of 19 years.

Mark Leyshon, senior research and policy manager at Alcohol Change UK, said: "People drink heavily for a variety of reasons, but drinking to try to cope with the pressures and stresses of everyday life, including work, is commonly cited.

"Drinking to manage stress may be common, but that doesn't mean it works - it may even increase anxiety longer term.

"It also impacts on work performance, resulting in absenteeism, impaired decision-making and damaged relations with co-workers - and in the vital roles done by NHS employees these performance problems have a particularly concerning potential impact."

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At least 107 NHS trusts and three Clinical Commissioning Groups recorded staff absences because of substance abuse.

The data does not distinguish between sick leave taken by medical staff responsible for patient care, or by administrative and managerial staff.

However, similar figures released in recent years show the majority of substance abuse sick days were taken by clinical staff, including doctors, nurses, midwives, and their support staff, and therapeutic or technical staff such as radiographers, cardiologists and physiotherapists.

Alcohol Change UK said it was important for the NHS to make staff aware of the risks of alcohol and drug abuse, and put support in place for them.

Mr Leyshon continued: "The starting point is to provide a safe and healthy working environment, including one in which staff are not overworked.

"One of the most important things an employer can do is work to create a climate of openness that is more about identifying problems and encouraging people towards support, and less about punishment."

A spokesman for NHS England and NHS Improvement said: "NHS staff struggling with drug and alcohol problems deserve compassionate support like anyone else, which is why the NHS has set up programmes such as the GP Health Service that can help them.

"However, patient safety is paramount and if a staff member were to come to work under the influence they would be subject to well established disciplinary procedures.

"For doctors and nurses this could also involve scrutiny of their fitness to practice by their professional regulator."

Will Taylor, Head of occupational health and wellbeing, at Barking, Havering and Redbridge NHS Trust said he was pleased to see that the figures are significantly lower than many other comparable trusts.

"We employ more than 6,500 staff, many of whom are performing consistently and effectively in very demanding work environments," he said.

"We take their health and wellbeing very seriously.

"We have a number of policies and processes in place to support colleagues and prevent and mitigate factors which could lead to substance misuse. When substance misuse is identified, we offer counselling and specialist support services to help them return to full health.

"While these occasions are rare, we want to ensure our staff can access help when they most need it."