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Exclusive: Mental health staffing guidance 'does not go far enough'

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Draft national staffing guidance for mental health organisations has been criticised by a union which claims it does not go far enough to ensure services are safe and that instead efforts should be made to legislate for minimum staffing levels.

In its response to NHS Improvement’s proposed guidance, union Unite said that without minimum staffing levels, cash-strapped employers “will continue to cut staffing budgets to achieve financial balance at a detriment to patient care”.

The union also said “urgent steps” were required to increase the number of mental health nurses, following a decent decline in the size of the workforce.

In addition, it called for immediate action to increase the number of allied health professionals, including psychologists, working in mental health services.

”We do not believe that this work goes far enough. We acknowledge that this may well be due to the limitations imposed on the working group by government”

Unite

The union went on to raise concerns about the absence of any reference to funding for mental health services in the guidance, adding that “adequate finances are vital to ensure services are safe”.

It also highlighted the lack of details in the document about how organisations should use continuing professional development to support mental health staff, and called for this to be made a requirement.

The union said it welcomed NHSI’s recognition that evidence showed lower staffing levels in mental health services can affect staff morale and increase concerns about personal safety.

But it said the document should also acknowledge that “regular use of bank and agency staff to achieve minimum staffing numbers has a detrimental impact to both staff health and wellbeing and the ability to provide safe and effective care”.

“We believe that rather than producing guidance for organisations, the government should make progress on legislation that enshrines minimum staffing levels”

Unite

Meanwhile, independent providers of mental health services should be required to take part in a proposed benchmarking exercise – and not just NHS services, as the documents stated, said Unite.

“Unite believes that achieving safe, sustainable and productive staffing in mental health services is of paramount importance. If we are to achieve the goal of achieving parity of esteem, this work is critical,” said the union in its response to NHSI’s consultation.

“Taking the above in to account, we do not believe that this work goes far enough. We acknowledge that this may well be due to the limitations imposed on the working group by government,” it added.

”We have lost nearly 5,000 mental health nurses since 2010…this kind of encouragement doesn’t have the effect required”

Dave Munday

“We believe that rather than producing guidance for organisations, the government should make progress on legislation that enshrines minimum staffing levels in mental health services,” said the union.

“This is an important piece of work but there is an issue about what kind of requirement there is for organisations to follow this guidance,” Unite’s lead professional officer for mental health, Dave Munday, told Nursing Times.

“At the moment we are in a situation where we have lost nearly 5,000 mental health nurses since 2010 and this kind of encouragement doesn’t have the effect that is required at the moment,” he said.

“Our concern is that if this safe staffing document is not made a requirement then organisations will put it on the shelf and move on,” he added.

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