Staff shortages, unsustainable high workloads, acutely unwell patients and verbal and physical aggression top the leading causes of workplace stress experienced by Australia’s mental health nurses, with the rising toll now impacting their own mental health, according to new research.
The study, Mental health matters: A cross-sectional study of mental health nurses’ health-related quality of life and work-related stressors, surveyed 498 Victorian mental health nurses about wellbeing and stress.
Published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, the study found high rates of ongoing stress among mental health nurses has triggered implications for workforce attrition, with the sector now on “the cusp of a crisis”.
Mental health nurses’ ability to provide quality care to people experiencing mental illness could be reduced if they struggle with poorer mental health themselves, the study also found.
According to lead author Professor Kim Foster, who heads Australian Catholic University’s Mental Health Nursing Research Unit in partnership with NorthWestern Mental Health at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the findings raise serious concerns about the ongoing impacts on the wellbeing, retention and practice of mental health nurses, the largest group in the mental health workforce, looking forward.
The research makes a number of recommendations for how organisations can better support mental health nurses’ health and wellbeing.
“There is a critical need for organisations to enact effective policy and initiatives to improve staff psychology and physical safety, strengthen wellbeing and resilience, and reduce workplace violence,” Professor Foster said.
Mental health nurses face some of the most significant workplace stress in the country, according to Professor Foster, such as staff conflict and bullying, high workloads, lack of organisational support and lack of adequate resources to perform their 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 highlighted.
Australia’s mental health nurses provide vital clinical care but there is a projected workforce shortage of 18,500 by 2030. Experts suggest the predicted shortfall requires new strategies to replenish numbers before the situation deteriorates to a full-blown crisis where patient demand cannot be met. New graduates are considered a priority group for urgent intervention.
Professor Foster said the study’s findings support the need for state-wide initiatives to reduce occupational violence, together with mental health service initiatives including psychological wellbeing support and resilience education to improve staff wellbeing.
“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 professions and mental health services.”