NURSES employed by a crisis-hit Scots health board took 17,500 days off sick last year due to depression, anxiety and stress.
Figures revealed that a total of 160,524 nursing hours were lost due to mental health issues among NHS Lothian nurses, a rise of over 63 per cent compared with five years ago.
This absences have cost the NHS around £2.1 million over the 12 month period.
The board is struggling to meet waiting time targets and it is feared many nurses are cracking under the strain.
Earlier this week it was revealed the board may send up to 500 patients abroad for treatment to meet the waiting targets.
The crisis follows the publication of a damning report into management culture at NHS Lothian which revealed that bullying was rife in certain areas. Earlier this year it emerged staff had wrongly suspended patients from the waiting lists to meet targets.
Jackie Baillie, Labour MSP and shadow health secretary, described the figures as “extremely stark” and explained that more needed to be done to support burnt-out staff.
She said: “This is clear evidence of the strain that nurses are being put under both in terms of NHS Lothian’s behaviour but also because there are 2500 fewer nurses in the NHS [nationwide].
“We have a situation in Lothian where stress-related absence has nearly doubled in five years. They need to reverse some of the cuts in nursing numbers.”
An average wage for a NHS Lothian nurse is £13.30 an hour meaning in the five-year period, mental health related absences has cost approximately £8.3 million.
Despite the number of days lost to mental health issues rising for the third consecutive year, overall sick days fell to 95, 652 down from 99,371 in 2010-11 and 100,461 in 2009-10.
Lynn McDowall, Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland professional officer for NHS Lothian, explained that the increase in stress-related absences was “no surprise”.
She said: “We are deeply concerned at the steep rise in days lost due to stress, which may be symptomatic of the organisational culture and other issues raised earlier this year in the report on the management culture in NHS Lothian.
“We are already committed to working in partnership with the health board through the establishment of a group specifically to look at the culture within NHS Lothian.
“Nursing is an emotionally and physically demanding job and, with continuing cuts to the number of nurses in what is an ageing workforce, the pressure on staff to deliver high-quality care with fewer resources is increasing.”
Gavin Brown, Lothian Conservative MSP, has called on NHS Lothian to explain the rise.
He said: “Nurses have incredibly difficult jobs and they should be treated with the utmost respect. We do not want to lose nursing days because of stress, anxiety or depression.
“We know over the past year there have been allegations of bullying and extreme work pressure, and this is something that cannot continue.”
Nursing Standard, which is published by the RCN, said this week that 64 per cent of the 8000 UK nurses surveyed have considered leaving their job and more than eight in ten complained about stress at work.
The RCN also saw a 38 per cent rise in staff seeking help from its counselling service.
NHS Lothian said a new electronic reporting system has been brought in between 2007-09 explained the jump from 10,766 nursing days lost in 2007-8 to 14,826 in 2009-10.
However between 2009-10 and 2011-12 when the same reporting system was in place, the number of days lost due to mental health increased to 17,593- almost a 20 per cent rise.
Tom Waterson, Unison branch chairman for Lothian, has worked with the health board to try and reduce sickness absence.
He claims the rise in figures for stress-related absence could be explained by managers using the new reporting system more efficiently and that people are nowadays more open about mental health issues.
Mr Waterson has however called for more investment in NHS Lothian’s internal counselling service.
He said: “Nursing is a highly-stressed job, particularly because of cutbacks.”
Alan Boyter, NHS Lothian’s director of human resources and organisational development, said the health board had been “working hard” with trade unions to reduce sickness levels, leading to the overall drop.
He said: “Our nurses do an excellent job and we have a range of policies to support those who are unwell.”
It was revealed last month that some Lothian nurses had been working for seven days a week for three months straight.