Critical shortage of mental health nurses looms stress and high workloads take a toll

Victorian mental health nurses report staff shortages, unsustainable high workloads, acutely unwell patients, and verbal and physical aggression as top causes of stress at work, according to a new ACU study.

The study, published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, found high rates of ongoing stress had serious implications for attrition of mental health nurses with the industry on the cusp of a crisis.

Lead author Professor Kim Foster, who heads ACU’s Mental Health Nursing Research Unit in partnership with NorthWestern Mental Health at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said mental health nurses faced some of the most significant workplace stress in the country.

“There is a critical national shortage of nurses in mental health and attrition of the mental health nursing workforce is due in large part to workplace stressors,” Professor Foster said.

Mental health nurses comprise the largest group in the Australian mental health workforce and provide vital clinical care yet there is a projected undersupply of 18,500 by 2030.

The predicted shortfall has experts seriously concerned about ways to replenish the profession’s numbers before the situation swiftly moves from a shortage to a full-blown crisis and is unable to meet patient demand.

“To address the looming mental health nursing workforce crisis in Australia, workplace stress needs to be an urgent priority for governments, industrial organisations, the profession, and mental health services. Assertive measures need to be taken to reduce these stressors, and to strengthen nurses’ well-being and resilience,” she said.

Professor Foster said the findings on workplace stress support the need for the state-wide initiatives to reduce occupational violence and mental health service initiatives to improve the safety and well-being of patients and staff.

To help address these workforce issues, Professor Foster has been awarded a $317,500 Australian Research Council Linkage grant to conduct a large-scale trial of a workplace resilience program with nurses at NorthWestern Mental Health. 

The project aims to improve mental health nurses’ resilience, retention and quality of practice through implementation of a resilience-building program.

The project is in partnership with the resilience program developers at Queensland University of Technology, and the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria, Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation Victoria, Health and Community Services Union Victoria, NorthWestern Mental Health, Melbourne Health, and researchers at Monash University and University of Technology Sydney.

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