100 N&N staff off with stress due to impact of Covid-related deaths

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

More than 110 members of staff are currently off at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for stress and anxiety. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Archant

Hospital bosses say NHS staff must be helped to cope with the after-effects of handling the pandemic, as figures show more than 100 workers at one hospital are off with stress.

Chris Cobb, chief operating officer for the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), said staff have been struggling with the significant numbers of Covid-related deaths in recent weeks as the hospital responded to its "most challenging" period of the pandemic so far.

Chris Cobb, chief operating officer at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital. Pic: Archant

Chris Cobb, chief operating officer at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital. Pic: Archant - Credit: Archant

There are currently 526 members of staff off sick, the equivalent of 5.7pc of the workforce. Of those 526, 118 are currently off with stress or anxiety.

At a board meeting on Wednesday,  Mr Cobb said: "I think more worryingly of late the incidents of stress within the hospital has been the factor that has been keeping our absences quite high. We all need to keep a close eye on that on the next little while, it cannot be stressed how difficult this has been and the emotional effect it has had on people.

"I think it is starting to ease, we have seemed to have crested the peak of this wave and we are starting to see some of our wards having a little bit of flexibility in terms of available beds.

"It's been difficult for all of us to see people that we see as pillars and rocks of their specialty really struggle to come to terms with the significant deaths on a daily basis.

"We had a weekend which was truly tragic and extraordinary where 48 people passed away over the Saturday and Sunday and the teams were really emotionally drained come Monday morning. Really hard."

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At the peak, the hospital was treating 351 Covid patients, including 38 people from out of area - this is the equivalent of 40pc of the hospital's total adult beds in use for Covid patients.

The operating officer told the board that while general beds were starting to become freer, patient numbers in critical care have remained "static" for some time - around 50 - and the workforce was still "beyond stretched".

The board also heard that this time around patients are requiring longer stays in hospital, with more than 100 Covid patients having been in the hospital for 14 days or more.

Erika Denton, Medical Director at NNUH. Photo: NNUH

Erika Denton, Medical Director at NNUH. Photo: NNUH - Credit: NNUH

Erika Denton, medical director, said: "It is going to mean the hospital is looking after a lot of Covid patients for many weeks to come. We are not going to be able to restore all our other services as quickly as any of us would want to. That’s partly because of bed space but also we have a finite workforce."

Mr Cobb added: "I cannot emphasise enough just how difficult that has been and continues to be. We recognise as an executive team we have put our staff in very difficult positions throughout the last four to six weeks."

Board members asked about what further support staff needed in addition to current psychological and counselling services.

Prof Nancy Fontaine said: "There’s no doubt about the longer term damage, we’re seeing already those changes in our absenteeism because of stress, battle fatigue, sheer exhaustion, not just physical, and we have been working up what that looks like longer term. 

NNUH chief nurse Professor Nancy Fontaine. Photo: NNUH

NNUH chief nurse Professor Nancy Fontaine. Photo: NNUH - Credit: NNUH

"We’re trying to give relief to people by moving them. Sometimes the deployment is helping, is that enough? There will be many to coin the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that is a very real possibility for some of our staff.  

"In a month, to have the number of Covid deaths that the James Paget [University Hospital] has beds is significant. We take this extremely seriously, we have a package but we are looking at what we can do and that might be for more than a year."

Paul Jones, chief people officer, said stress-related illness had been one of the hospital's main sources of absence over the last few years and told the board staff would be able to access psychological support services for the next two years.

He added the hospital needed to support staff recuperation as many had not had time to take annual leave.

He said: "People are only human, that commitment can’t go on forever and I think we have to realise as an organisation how we support that recuperation period. How we address those pressures and demands to dive back into restoring priority elective care. Both are equally important.

"I think we would get more benefit for the future in terms of the resilience of the workforce if we allow that period of recuperation."

As of Tuesday, the hospital has carried out 25,000 vaccinations, including for 10,000 of its staff, 10,000 other health and social care workers, 4,000 people aged over 80 and 1,600 care home workers.

Mr Cobbs said there is hope the hub can begin administering second coronavirus doses from February 22.

Sam Higginson, the new chief executive at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Photo: NNUH

Sam Higginson, the new chief executive at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Photo: NNUH - Credit: NNUH

Sam Higginson, the hospital's chief executive, added: “I just want to reiterate how delicate the situation is and to ask members of the community to abide by the social distancing rules, hands, face, space, wearing your mask and washing your hands. All of this is crucial if we not only are going to keep patients safe in the hospital but keep each other safe in the community. "