Mental health nurses struggling with their own mental health as stress and workloads escalate

Mental health nurses report staff shortages, unsustainable high workloads, acutely unwell patients, and verbal and physical aggression as top causes of work stress impacting their own mental health, according to a new ACUsurvey.

The survey of 498 Victorian mental health nurses on wellbeing and stress, published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, is the first and largest of its kind in Australia.

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 it has raised serious concerns about ongoing implications for the wellbeing, retention, and practice of the largest group in the mental health workforce.

It found high rates of ongoing stress had serious implications for attrition of mental health nurses with the industry on the cusp of a crisis. Mental health nurses’ ability to provide quality care to people with mental illness can also be reduced if they experience poor mental health themselves.

“In the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and in the ongoing COVID situation, this is of significant relevance and we have made a number of recommendations as to how organisations can support nurses' health,” Professor Foster said.

“There is a critical need for organisations to enact effective policy and initiatives to improve staff psychological and physical safety, strengthen wellbeing and resilience, and reduce workplace violence.”

Professor Foster said mental health nurses faced some of the most significant workplace stress in the country including staff conflict and bullying, high workloads, lack of organisational support and lack of adequate resources to perform their nursing roles.

“Most concerning is that younger mental health nurses, aged between 21-30 years, and those with under four years’ experience in the field had substantially lower mental health,” Professor Foster said.

New graduates are a priority group for urgent intervention. 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.

“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 stress,” Professor Foster said.

“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.”

Professor Foster said the findings support the need for the state-wide initiatives to reduce occupational violence, and mental health service initiatives including psychological wellbeing support and resilience education to improve staff well-being.

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