Addressing underlying workforce challenges is essential to meet the nation’s mental health care needs
Dr Naomi Klepacz & Professor Jane Ball (School of Health Sciences, University of Southampton)
What is it like to be part of the mental health nursing workforce? We argue that it is only by understanding the reality of the job – its highs and its lows – that we will be able to grow the mental health workforce and hold on to experienced nurses needed to deliver care well.
Demand for mental health services is at an all-time high, yet many people cannot access vital services and face long waits for treatment (1). Nurses comprise one-in-three of the NHS mental health workforce (2). They are fundamental to providing mental health services and a positive patient experience. However, mental health nursing vacancies represent a third of all nursing vacancies (3), and while there has been a welcome increase in the number of mental health nurses in recent years, the rate of increase still falls behind that seen in adult and children’s nursing (2). There are also significant regional differences in mental health nurse staffing that seem disconnected from the level of demand for services (2). The bottom line is that both now and, in the future, we need more nurses working in mental health – which means expanding supply and ensuring we have the conditions needed to retain the experienced staff we already have. The NHS Long Term workforce plan proposes an investment in expanding training places by 2028/29, with a promised increase of 38% for mental health nursing (4). A substantial change, but lower than that promised to other fields of nursing.
Research has demonstrated the link between nurse wellbeing and patient experience of care, staff and patient safety, sickness absence, job satisfaction and leads to staff leaving the workforce (5). Physical or mental health, burnout or exhaustion currently follow retirement as the top reason nurses leave the profession (6).
The 2022 NHS Staff Survey reports that 49% of mental health nurses felt unwell because of work-related stress in the last 12 months, 61% came to work despite not feeling well enough to perform their duties, 45% reported often or always finding their work emotionally exhausting, and 28% experienced physical violence from a patient or service user in the last 12 months. In addition, 70% work additional unpaid hours over and above their contracted hours.
Therefore, understanding the working lives and wellbeing of the mental health nursing workforce is critical for patient care quality, patient nurses, and the growing nursing workforce.
Change is urgently needed to meet the nation’s demand for mental health care, but change requires commitment, investment, and, above all, an understanding of, and sensitivity to, the underlying issues. NHS England made a commitment to the growth and development of mental health nursing (7), and recommendations from this report together with those from the Nuffield Trust (2) say a more accurate and realistic image of the mental health nursing role is needed, with clarity on career options, work setting and the range of people mental health nurses care for, to challenge false stereotypes.
In our research into the working lives and wellbeing of nurses in mental health, we have spoken to some truly inspirational nurses who describe working as a mental health nurse as “the best job in the world”. While both patients and nurses place value on therapeutic relationships (8), the importance of these relationships appears to be poorly understood by those who have not been touched by this experience (9). Yet the absence of such relationships in mental health care can impact both patients (who may feel more disconnected, alone or vulnerable) and nurses - who are less likely to feel job satisfaction or take pride in the care provided (8,10). Unlike other fields of nursing, mental health nurses argue that it is this patient familiarity, the knowledge and experience gained through patient interaction, rather than treatment-focused ‘skills’ that make mental health nurses unique and indispensable while also making the role of mental health nurses challenging to define and difficult to evidence.
Nurses don’t just deliver the intervention; they are the intervention.
This is why we are undertaking a study (with funding from the NIHR ARC Wessex Mental Health Hub) to provide insight into the work lives, wellbeing and working context of nurses in mental health services so that action can be taken (through local changes and/or national policy) to enable a better experience of work. When nurses feel good about the work they do and are given what they need, the benefits – to staff, organisations, and patients – are many.
As part of this work, a national survey of the mental health nursing workforce is currently underway. This survey is open to nurses on the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC Register) providing mental healthcare to any patient group, in any setting, and for any health and social care provider. It is completely anonymous and will take 15-20 minutes to complete.
This study is supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research ARC Wessex. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the National Institute for Health and Care Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.
1. Care Quality Commission. Rising demand for mental health care [Internet]. 2022. Available from: https://www.cqc.org.uk/publications/major-reports/soc202021_01d_mh-care-demand
2. Palmer W, Dodsworth E, Rolewicz L. In train? Progress on mental health nurse education [Internet]. Nuffield Trust; 2023 May. Available from: https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/2023-05/Mental%20Health%20nursing%20update_WEB_FINAL.pdf
3. NHS Digital. NHS Vacancy Statistics England, April 2015 - March 2023, Experimental Statistics [Internet]. 2023. Available from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/nhs-vacancies-survey/april-2015---march-2023-experimental-statistics
4. NHS England. NHS Long Term Workforce Plan [Internet]. 2023 Jun. Available from: https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/nhs-long-term-workforce-plan-v1.2.pdf
5. Maben J, Adams M, Peccei R, Murrells T, Robert G. Patients’ experiences of care and the influence of staff motivation, affect and well-being. NIHR;
6. Nursing & Midwifery Council. 2023 NMC Registere Leavers Survey (Summary Report) [Internet]. Nursing & Midwivery Council; 2023 May [cited 2023 Jul 10] p. 1–36. Available from: https://www.nmc.org.uk/globalassets/sitedocuments/data-reports/may-2023/annual-data-report-leavers-survey-2023.pdf
7. Health Education England. Commitment and Growth: advancing mental health nursing now and for the future [Internet]. Health Education England; 2022 Apr p. 37. Available from: https://www.hee.nhs.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Commitment%20and%20Growth%20Advancing%20Mental%20Health%20Nursing%20Now%20and%20for%20the%20Future.pdf
8. Simpson A, Hannigan B, Coffey M, Barlow S, Cohen R, Jones A, et al. Recovery-focused care planning and coordination in England and Wales: a cross-national mixed methods comparative case study. BMC Psychiatry. 2016;16(147).
9. Clarke L. The therapeutic relationship and Mental Health Nursing: it is time to articulate what we do! J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2012;19:839–43.
10. Coffey M, Hannigan B, Barlow S, Cartwright M, Cohen R, Faulkner A, et al. Recovery-focused mental health care planning and co-ordination in acute inpatient mental health settings: a cross national comparative mixed methods study. BMC Psychiatry. 2019;19(115).