THE rising number of hospital workers seeking support for stress and other mental health problems in Oxfordshire needs to be tackled, managers have admitted.

New figures have revealed that the number of staff at the county's acute hospitals being referred to the ‘occupational health’ team for mental health problems soared by 27 per cent last year.

In the first three months of this year alone, 126 staff were referred to the same team at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (OUH). With overstretched NHS staff struggling to cope with increasing workloads, union leaders warn the problem is only likely to get worse until understaffing and the high cost of living in Oxfordshire are addressed.

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According to trust figures, between April 2017 and March 2018 a total of 1,665 staff were referred to occupational health.

Of those, 429 (25 per cent) related to mental health concerns, including work-related stress – up from 337 in 2016/17.

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The 126 workers seen for mental health problems between January and March make up 30 per cent of all occupational health referrals this year so far.

The trust, which runs the John Radcliffe and Churchill hospitals in Headington, has previously introduced measures to help protect and improve the mental wellbeing of its under-pressure staff, including workshops and support groups.

However, mental health nurse and Oxford Unison spokesman Ian McKendrick said the figures did not come as a surprise.

He warned that the situation would not improve until action was taken to address the retention and recruitment issues faced by local NHS services.

He said: “They’ve got a thousand vacancies.

“If you haven’t got a full workforce then you’ve got the existing staff trying to deliver huge amounts of work with huge amounts of responsibly involved – it’s going to take its toll.

“When the roles are being filled, they are being filled on an ad-hoc basis with agency staff, which just adds to the whole sense of stress.”

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Ian McKendrick.

There have been long-running calls to introduce an Oxfordshire pay weighting, similar to London, to help key workers cope with the high cost of living in Oxfordshire, calls that have been backed by local MPs and trust chiefs in the past.

Mr McKendrick said the weighting was essential, and revealed that Unison representatives would be seeking a meeting with national health leaders to formally request the weighting is applied in Oxford.

Recent research by Unison found that some workers at the lower end of the NHS pay scale in Oxfordshire spent as much as 85 per cent of their monthly wage on rent for a one-bed flat.

Mr McKendrick added: “Staff need to be able to do more than just work, eat and sleep.

“Without action on the cost of living to help recruit staff and also to allow staff to relax and recuperate on their days off, it’s only going to get worse.

“But it just isn’t being addressed.”

In March, a staff survey revealed how 62 per cent of workers at the trust would regularly work beyond their contracted hours without being paid, while 42 per cent said work-related stress had made them ill.

The trust employs around 12,000 staff.

Worryingly for trust bosses, just a quarter of staff felt that OUH took positive action on the mental health and wellbeing of its staff.

Last week calls were made in the national media for early mental health training and support for young nurses as it was revealed that 305 NHS nurses had taken their own lives between 2011 and 2017 – 23 per cent higher than the national average.

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Director of improvement and culture at the trust John Drew said that staff wellbeing was ‘very important’.

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He said the trust had recently started running new wellbeing initiatives, such as its Think, Pause, Recharge campaign aimed at ensuring staff take the breaks they need to, and said a ‘cultural change’ would naturally take time to ‘bed in’.

In a statement he said: “Our staff care deeply about what they do in caring for patients and increasing demand for patient care can create challenging conditions for staff.

“We have a duty as an employer to help our staff to manage their stress as well as possible and have worked with staff to set up several wellbeing initiatives.

“Some of our nursing staff recently attended mental health first aid training to improve the understanding of factors affecting mental health, and we will continue to work on this as part of our wider mental health framework.”

Responding to the latest occupational health referral figures he said: “We track referrals patterns closely and the increase in these referrals is a concern both locally and nationally within the NHS.

“We are committed to continue working with our staff to provide ongoing mental health support and address the issues they raise with us.

“We also continue to work hard on recruitment and retention of staff with an improvement in retention and over 150 more substantive staff added to our workforce this year.”