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Mental health nurse employers 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'

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Shortages of mental health nurses have left employers “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to fill gaps in their workforce, a nurse leader has warned.

While welcoming the new national focus on widening mental health support, Chris Caldwell, director of nursing and executive lead for workforce at Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London, said organisations were fishing for nurses from the same pool – and there were not enough to go round. 

“We are robbing Peter to pay Paul”

Chris Caldwell 

Speaking at a nursing workforce conference in London on Thursday, Dr Caldwell said: “It’s fantastic we are having such massive expansion of mental health services, it’s about time – the challenge is that we are just moving people around. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Dr Caldwell is co-chair of the London Perinatal Mental Health Network and she highlighted how nurses being recruited into these services were coming from “community mental health schemes that are struggling”.

And she feared the trend would become cyclical as priorities changed. With community mental health taking centre stage in the NHS Long Term Plan, Dr Caldwell told delegates there was “a chance” these nurses would then be drawn back out of perinatal services. 

She was talking at a conference hosted by the Health Foundation think tank called Bridging the nursing gap: addressing the workforce challenge in the short term. 

In terms of student recruitment, Dr Caldwell said mental health nursing had “held up” but the profile of those studying was “massively changing” and was now “much, much younger”.

“In another safety critical industry, we would not get away with that”

Chris Caldwell

The chances of people staying in the profession for their whole career were now “really slim”, Ms Caldwell added. 

“Most people coming into nursing now are thinking five years,” she told delegates. “So, we’ve got to get them in the first year if we want to stay, we have got to convince them.”

Dr Caldwell said a “massive issue” for mental health nursing was the decline in people choosing to study via the postgraduate route.

“Our employers tell us they are the nurses they want; they want people with life experience, they want people who can hit the ground running,” she said.

“We really need to think about how to attract those people – there are loads of people out there looking for a second career in nursing and it’s the perfect one for them,” she added.

Dr Caldwell, who heads up the National Workforce Skills Development Unit based at Tavistock and Portman, said she was shocked by the findings of Health Education England’s recent report into staff mental health.

She called for more investment into wellbeing initiatives for healthcare professionals.

“How can we say the work does all this stuff to people and not do anything about it?,” said Dr Caldwell.

“In another safety critical industry, we would not get away with that,” she said. “If we were working in the nuclear industry and we were exposing our staff to that kind of radiation on a day-to-day basis, we would not get away it, so why do we get it away with it in healthcare?”

In the wake of the HEE report, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock vowed to overhaul mental health support for NHS staff.

Programme director at the Capital Nurse initiative, which is tackling nursing shortages in London, Ms Caldwell said those behind the project were working the improve the way nurses were talked about.

“If we talk about nursing as this disastrous disaster area, how are on earth are we going to imagine anybody else will want to come, and actually people who are in nursing who are being told it’s a disaster are going to start thinking ‘maybe it is… so I’m leaving too’,” she said.

Ms Caldwell told delegates the Capital Nurse programme was “about talking nursing up”.

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