A Freedom of Information request submitted by the Welsh Conservatives revealed that anxiety, stress, depression and other unspecified psychiatric illnesses affected 7,945 staff members in 2015-16. Mental health illness accounted for more days of absence across the Welsh NHS than any other condition.

A total of 345,957 days of absence were recorded – equivalent to 948 years – with workers taking on average 46 days’ leave at a time. But in response the Welsh Government said sickness absence decreased on the same period the preceding year.

Sara Moseley, director of Mind Cymru, said: “Our Workplace Wellbeing Index shows that mental health problems are the leading cause of sickness absence so it’s worrying but not surprising that this is also the number one problem in Wales’ health boards. “NHS staff do an extremely challenging job day in and day out, frequently encountering difficult and traumatic situations, and the nature of the job means that staff and volunteers could be at a greater risk of developing mental health problems. “That’s why it’s so important that comprehensive, ongoing mental health support is available. While NHS staff are offered support through occupational health the levels of mental health-related sickness shows that more needs to be done. “All employers, including the NHS, need to take steps to help tackle the causes of stress and poor mental health at work. NHS Wales needs to develop a comprehensive mental health strategy to create an open and supportive working environment.”

Cardiff and Vale University Health Board lost the most working days – 68,473 – due to employees suffering with a mental health illness, although this was based on a two-year average. At 2,071, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg UHB recorded the most individual “episodes” of mental health illness absence.

Shadow Health Secretary Angela Burns AM said health boards seemed “worryingly impotent” in supporting their workers with mental health issues to return to work sooner. She has now called on the Welsh Government to introduce a rapid access to treatment system for NHS staff.

Rapid access is a system already in use in some NHS England Trusts. It is designed to secure rehabilitation and occupational health treatment for NHS employees with a view to facilitating a return to work which is fast and practical as reasonably possible.

She said: “Long-term sickness absence can be incredibly costly for health boards, who among other things have to fork out for expensive agency or bank staff, and places an added pressure on colleagues who have to contend with an increased workload. “By introducing a rapid access to treatment system which prioritises NHS workers, health boards could make substantial savings, leading to a more consistent and healthy workforce, resulting in better patient care.”

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “The sickness absence rate in the NHS in Wales has decreased when compared to the same period last year. “While this is welcome news NHS Wales is taking action to support staff and reduce sickness rates further. “This includes participating in our Corporate Health Standard Initiative to promote the health and wellbeing of staff and through our In Work Support Operation, which provides staff with practical support to remain in work, or to return to work following an illness.”

A spokeswoman for ABMU Health Board said: “We take the health and wellbeing of our staff seriously and we have a number of programmes in place to support staff who may be suffering from stress or other mental health issues. “These include Wellbeing Through Work, the Lighten Up programme, and a wide range of access to self-help support.

“We monitor the absence rate very closely and we are working to reduce this by providing multi-disciplinary support for line managers to help people return to work and widening access to our internal Employee Wellbeing Service and counselling advice. “We are also looking in detail at the causes of stress and anxiety and have a Health and Wellbeing Advisory Group who are overseeing the work to address these issues and to explore innovative ways of improving staff wellbeing.”

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