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NHS fails to protect mental health support workers, says report

mental health


Mental health clinical support workers experience more abuse, poorer working conditions and fewer opportunities than other healthcare staff, research has found.

Untapped? Understanding the mental health clinical support workforce, published by the Nuffield Trust think tank, found more than one-third (37%) of mental health support staff experienced violence at the hands of patients, relatives and the public. This compares with 17% of other staff working in mental health services and 29% of clinical support workers in other services.

Some 14% of mental health clinical support staff – who are unregistered but do the bulk of the hands on work – are black or black British, compared with 6% of the whole NHS workforce, and they are more likely to experience racial discrimination than all staff working in mental health, the research highlighted.

Just over half (56%) of mental health support workers are satisfied with opportunities for flexible working, with job adverts more likely to require flexibility from candidates than to offer flexible working.

Moreover, training and continuing professional development opportunities are lacking for clinical support workers in mental health.

Despite the fact the support workforce typically spend more time directly caring for patients than any other mental health role, just 1% of people who had been in these NHS roles for a year moved into nursing associate training.

Crucially, the number of mental health clinical support workers in the NHS fell by 8% in the 10 years to January 2021, while pressure on services continues to rise in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

There are 340,000 full-time equivalent clinical support staff across NHS hospitals and community health settings, the report pointed out, which is larger than the nursing and midwifery workforce. Just over 41,000 (an eighth) of the 340,000 work in mental health – a third of those working in mental health.

Dr Billy Palmer, report co-author and Nuffield Trust senior fellow, said: ‘There has been a long-standing failure to address unmet mental health need in the NHS, and due to Covid-19, demand for mental health services has only increased.

‘Despite government commitments to expand high-quality mental health services to an extra 2 million people in the next two years, we find that the mental health support workforce, who are at the forefront of delivering patient care, are often left unsupported, not afforded flexible working and face increased discrimination.

‘Failure to attract people to these vital roles in mental health services could mean people waiting longer for treatment, and impact on care quality and other NHS services.’

The research was part of a project by the National Workforce Skills Development Unit (NWSDU), which aims to tackle mental health workforce issues in England in partnership with Health Education England. It was conducted between November 2020 and January 2021. In March, the government announced a £500m funding package to support mental health services in response to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nursing in Practice explored the damaging impact of the Covid pandemic on children amid a lack of resources for young people’s mental health services.

A version of this story originally appeared on Nursing in Practice’s sister title Healthcare Leader.