NHS staff at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Trust took more than four months’ 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 University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust were absent from work because of substance abuse for a combined total of 130 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.”
At least 88 NHS trusts and 12 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.”
Sue Smith, Executive Chief Nurse and Deputy Chief Executive at UHMBT, said: “For our 7,000 plus workforce this represents less than 0.01 per cent of the available days of working that are lost as a result of substance misuse.
“While this is very small, it is important that on the rare occasions that someone is recognised as having a dependency, they are supported to recover and are integrated safely back into the workplace, where possible.”