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'Stressed, stretched' mental health staff leaving jobs 'must be investigated', warns union

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The extent to which mental health staff are “stressed, stretched and leaving” services must be investigated in new research looking at turnover rates, healthcare workers have said at Unison’s annual health conference.

Union members described services as being at “breaking point,” due to a lack of funding in the mental health sector, increasing numbers of patients, too few staff and rising stress levels among workers.

“With services at breaking point… No wonder the staff are stressed, stretched and leaving”

Nick McMaster

This was leading to employees leaving their jobs, and adding to the pressures on remaining staff, they said, noting a 2017 Unison survey had found 75% of mental health workers were stressed at least once a week from work.

In addition, they said lack of beds – sometimes because there are not enough staff – meant services were even unable to resort to out-of-area placements, in which patients are moved to other parts of the country where NHS trusts have more capacity. 

At the conference in Brighton on Tuesday, Unison member Nick McMaster said his organisation, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, had problems with nurse staffing.

“There is a five-ward hospital, with 15 RMN vacancies, community nurses with a caseload of over 100 service users, staff leaving due to levels of aggression and violence, internal recruitment outstripping external recruitment,” he said.

“Night upon night when normal services cease at 5 o’clock, we receive more and more mental health callers in crisis”

Unison member

The trust also ran a care home with “such staff shortages that agency fees outstrip substantive staff costs” he told conference delegates.

“These are the issues my members face day in, day out, with services at breaking point… No wonder the staff are stressed, stretched and leaving,” he added.

Another Unison member, a nurse who works for NHS Direct Wales, said the patient information service was receiving increasing calls from people in crisis – but there were no specialist services to refer them to.

“Night upon night when normal services cease at 5 o’clock, we as nurses receive more and more mental health callers in crisis,” she said. “There is simply nowhere to direct them other than to overstaffed and underfunded emergency departments.”

She told delegates that this situation left staff feeling “angry and increasingly more stressed”.

Unison member Carol Briggs said her organisation, Norfolk and Suffolk Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, had closed its psychiatric intensive care unit in recent weeks due to staff shortages.

“In other parts of the service we are still sending out people to out-of-area beds, because we have no beds or staff,” she said.

“We are still sending out people to out-of-area beds because we have no beds or staff”

Carol Briggs

However, another speaker highlighted the pressures across the country, which meant out-of-areas beds were not always available.

He said he was aware of a situation occurring in Lancashire in recent months in which 40 people had been assessed as needing sectioning, but no bed could be found for them either locally or at any other service outside of the area.

The conference passed a motion calling on the union to carry out research on turnover rates among mental health staff and what employers should do to retain employees.

It also called for recognition of the recruitment and retention crisis in the sector, and agreed that the union should better promote its mental health resources pack.

More news from the Unison annual health conference:

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