More than two thirds of mental health workers have “often” or “sometimes” experienced an unsafe ratio of patients to staff in the past year, according to a new survey that has also revealed an increase in violent attacks.
The Unison survey of over 1,000 UK mental health employees, the majority of whom worked in nursing or care assistant roles, revealed 36% said violent attacks had risen in the past 12 months.
“These findings highlight a range of deep-rooted issues in mental health services that need to be addressed urgently”
More than two in five said they had been on the receiving end of violent attacks in the last year. Over a third (36%) said they had witnessed violent incidents involving patients attacking their colleagues.
Staff said assaults included being repeatedly punched to the floor, attempted strangulation and being head-butted.
A lack of staff was the most common reason given for the rise in incidents – by 87% of respondents – followed by the overuse of agency staff (50%) who have less time to get to know patients.
A total of 31% of respondents said there had “often” been an unsafe level of staff to service users in the past year, while 37% said this had occurred “sometimes”.
In addition, some staff said patients were being delayed in accessing services which meant their mental health had deteriorated by the time they were admitted.
“Severe staff shortages mean there are fewer mental health employees to deal with a rising number of users with complex needs”
Unison’s report on the survey results, titled Struggling to Cope, also revealed students were being used as part of staffing numbers.
Among the 300 respondents who supervised clinical placements, more than a third said these students were sometimes (22%) or often (13%) counted as part of core staff.
Just under two thirds of those involved in supervision of students said they did not have enough time to provide good support to trainees.
The survey of employees largely included NHS staff working across a range of settings from children and adult services to secure units and in the community. It found 60% were unable to support patients properly and around three quarters reported feeling stressed because of work.
While most staff (86%) said they felt they had the knowledge and training to carry out their work safely, around half believed their employers were not looking after their wellbeing.
Almost half of those (48%) taking part in the survey said they were either planning on, or considering, leaving their work in mental health.
“This is worrying given the drop in numbers of students applying for nursing degrees and the recruitment and retention problems in mental health settings,” stated the report.
Healthcare assistants used as ‘nurses on the cheap’
Unison stressed that staff shortages were cited repeatedly as a reason for violent incidents increasing. It called for a review of safe staffing levels within mental health services, leading to minimum staffing ratios.
“These findings highlight a range of deep-rooted issues in mental health services that need to be addressed urgently,” said Unison head of health Sara Gorton.
“The lack of prevention and absence of early intervention services mean that by the time many people access help, they are already very ill and at crisis point,” she said.
“Severe staff shortages mean there are fewer mental health employees to deal with a rising number of users with complex needs,” said Ms Gorton.
She added: ”As a result, many staff are having to work alone, making violent attacks more likely. It’s no wonder so many are planning on leaving for less stressful, safer work elsewhere.”