STAFF absence due to stress, anxiety and other mental health-related problems rose by nearly a fifth at Oxford University Hospitals Trust during the first coronavirus wave, figures reveal.

Mental health charity Mind said it was 'worrying but not surprising' that mental health sick days among NHS staff increased across England when the crisis hit, as many frontline workers were forced to spend time isolated from their families.

And with the country in the grip of a second wave – and another lockdown – unions are calling for the Government to invest in increasing NHS workforce levels and staff pay to boost the morale of 'exhausted health workers'.

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NHS Digital data shows the equivalent of 47,025 full-time staff days were lost due to sickness at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust between April and June.

Of these, 7,696 (16 per cent) were because of stress, anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric illnesses.

That was up 18 per cent compared to the same period last year, when 6,544 days were lost for these reasons.

Across England, the number of mental health sick days among NHS staff rose to nearly 1.5 million between April and June, up from 1.1 million in the same period last year.

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Sara Gorton, head of health at public sector union Unison, said healthcare workers had 'paid a heavy physical and psychological price' to keep the NHS running.

She added: "Staff shortages, while dealing with the backlog of cancelled operations from the spring, and the stress and trauma of working through the pandemic have hit hard.

“Kind words and applause can only go so far. The Government should do the right thing next week and boost morale with a significant pay rise before Christmas. This would make the world of difference to staff and the NHS during this punishing second wave.”

Susan Masters, director of nursing, policy and public affairs at the Royal College of Nursing, said a rise in staff needing to take time off for stress and anxiety during the pandemic 'should come as no surprise'.

She added that fundamental investment was needed to 'grow a depleted workforce' and avoid a further increase in stress and sickness levels.

Infectious diseases was the most common reason given for sickness absence at the Oxford trust in April and June.

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Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, said many healthcare staff told the charity they faced tough decisions around their personal lives during the first wave.

She said: "Sometimes they felt conflicted between their duty to patients and their need to protect their family and friends, with some forced to live away from loved ones to minimise the risk."

“Common misconceptions around resilience and immunity to poor mental health – the ‘superhero’ narrative – can actually prevent people asking for support when they need it, particularly from their manager or employer.”

An NHS spokesperson said more than 400,000 workers accessed a wellbeing programme encouraging staff to look after their physical and mental health during the first wave.

They added: “NHS staff have worked tirelessly to protect the health of the nation throughout this pandemic and it is vital that they are looked after too, which is why the NHS is investing an extra £15 million to expand and strengthen mental health support services available to staff.”