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A tough winter for the NHS in England will be made harder by growing sickness levels among nurses, nursing leaders have warned. Nurses are experiencing more sickness, including for anxiety and depression, than before the pandemic.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) analysed figures for staff sickness from before the pandemic and earlier this year, and found thousands of days lost to staff absence on already overstretched wards.

This adds to other reports about staff pressures on the NHS. As well as news today that women are missing vital breast cancer screenings, yesterday midwifery experts warned that staff shortages were making working life increasingly unbearable for midwives with many planning to leave.

This new analysis showed that the NHS in England recorded over 18% more sick days among nurses and health visitors in May 2021 compared to May 2019.

Staff are now more at risk of mental health problems, chest and respiratory problems and migraines than before the pandemic.

The RCN say nursing staff face a difficult winter in treating the backlog of NHS care, working on the flu and Covid booster vaccine programmes and dealing with the usual seasonal pressures.

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.

One nurse, Natalie, from Norfolk, said the pandemic had taken its toll on her mental health and wellbeing and that of her colleagues.

“More of us are having to take sick days due to the side effects of stress and anxiety, which leads to short staffing, which then causes more pressure and burnout on staff and leaves staff that are currently off feeling guilty,” she said.

“It’s a vicious circle. On an average shift, we can be to two registered nurses and a healthcare assistance down, and there is also increased pressure on newly qualified nurses and registered nursing associates when they actually need support developing themselves as registered practitioners.”

An NHS spokesman said: “NHS staff have pulled out all the stops to care for more than 450,000 Covid patients in addition to keep routine services going throughout the pandemic, and it is absolutely crucial that they receive the support they need as we head into winter, which is why a comprehensive support package is available for all NHS workers including a confidential helpline and rapid access to mental health services.”