A significant shortage of mental health nurses is putting staff at risk of burnout and impacting on patient care, an advocate says.
Specialist mental health services in Canterbury, based mainly at Hillmorton Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital, have vacancies for 60 full-time equivalent registered nurse positions. When fully staffed, the total nursing workforce is 550 full-time equivalent positions.
The number of vacancies was revealed in documents prepared for a Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) meeting this week. Staffing challenges were being monitored and managed daily and additional staffing options were being explored, the report says.
The shortage of nurses elsewhere in New Zealand has been described as a crisis. In July, the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation suggested the army should be brought in to help at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital because it was reportedly so understaffed.
Bernice Gibbs, chairwoman of consumer group Awareness: Canterbury Action on Mental Health and Addictions network, said having up to 60 vacancies was a huge issue.
“There would be issues around staff burnout, people working double shifts, and lots of overtime going on,” she said.
“That’s going to have an effect on your performance as a staff member and ultimately that’s going to have an impact on patients.”
The difficulty recruiting mental health nurses also raises questions about how new services around the country aimed at people with mild to moderate mental health needs would be staffed. The Government announced funding for the so-called universal frontline service in Budget 2019.
Health Minister David Clark said in a statement that the new services would require another 1600 full-time workers over five years, and the Government had allocated $77 million to train those people.
DHBs were “having to play catch up” with their workforces “after years of neglect”, he said.
“We are funding them to do so. We increased the funding for mental health services delivered by DHBs by $200m over four years in our first Budget and by a further $213m over four years in the Wellbeing Budget.
“The ministry is also working to increase the nursing workforce generally and will soon have some good news soon specifically around mental health nurses.”
PSA organiser Anthony Rimmell said unions representing mental health nurses in Canterbury were well aware of staffing shortage issues. Staff were being asked to move between units to make sure they were safely staffed and were also asked to take on extra shifts.
“The reality is people shouldn’t be having to consider working extra shifts to make sure that their wards are safe.”
Gutschlag said when there were shortages on a ward, the CDHB attempted to cover this from a casual pool of nurses. If this was unsuccessful, they would ask permanent staff if they could take on more hours.
“This does lead to situations where some nurses work overtime,” she said. “While this is closely monitored and we do aim to keep the amount of overtime nurses do to a minium, the current shortages in the workforce and high rates of sickness make this challenging.”
There were several initiatives in place to support staff wellbeing, Gutschlag said. The CDHB had also recently offered employment to at least 12 enrolled nurses, subject to them passing their exams, she said.