Canberra’s community-managed mental health workforce is under increasing pressure, with high rates of employment insecurity and drops in funding having a significant impact on the delivery of services across the ACT.
Nearly two-thirds of people who work in mental health in the Territory are employed through charities and other community-managed organisations, yet the ACT community-managed mental health workforce report 2023 is the first time the make-up of its employees has been comprehensively studied.
Commissioned by the Mental Health Community Coalition ACT (MHCC ACT), it revealed the sector is experiencing very high levels of employment insecurity, with about half of all workers either in casual (30 per cent) or temporary (nearly 20 per cent) employment.
This compares to Canberra Health Services data quoted in the report, which indicated 1.7 per cent of the public sector mental health workforce was casual, while 15.7 per cent were on temporary contracts and 82.6 per cent were permanent.
Acting MHCC ACT CEO Corinne Dobson said this was one of many challenges facing the community-managed mental health sector.
“The precarious and insecure nature of employment across our sector threatens the sustainability of our workforce and is contributing to difficulties attracting, recruiting and retaining appropriately skilled and experienced workers,” she said.
“Nearly half of the organisations surveyed have had vacant positions in their mental health workforce in the past six months, and of these over half indicated vacancies were difficult to fill.
“Difficulties recruiting and retaining staff are contributing to stress and burnout among the existing workforce, along with increased service waitlists and turn away rates.”
It was suggested it was possible more experienced workers were seeking better pay and more stable conditions in other sectors.
“The high rate of insecure employment conditions is of particular concern and is not conducive to workforce commitment and loyalty,” the report stated.
“This could have (if it is not already having) a detrimental effect on workplace retention and/or the quality of care.”
The report accused governments of being more concerned with giving funding to clinical mental health services.
Community-managed facilities tend to focus more on wellbeing and education rather than the illness, providing services such as social and emotional wellbeing activities, early intervention, supported accommodation, step up/step down services, safe spaces and telephone crisis support, as well as some clinical services.
“The crucial contribution made by the community-managed mental health workforce has not received the same level of acknowledgement or support,” Ms Dobson noted.
“The growing demand for mental health services across the ACT highlights the need for a robust and inclusive system of care – a system of care that in turn relies on a high quality, capable and sustainable workforce.”
According to survey respondents, the most significant factors impacting their ability to meet workplace demand were inadequate funding to recruit appropriately qualified staff, and issues around tendering and the commissioning of ACT Government-funded services.
Organisations operating this type of care receive many different funding streams, however most flagged the Territory as their main source of funding.
The report concluded the findings suggested the gap between workforce supply and demand may become more pronounced in the future, particularly if funding support isn’t increased at a rate which reflects the rise in demand.
“Despite its relative size and contribution, the community-managed mental health workforce appears to be under-valued and faces a range of potential challenges into the future,” it stated.
Ms Dobson said the report clearly showed the “urgent need” for a clear plan to ensure a sustainable and skilled mental health workforce for Canberra, to prevent staff stress and burnout, and to decrease service waiting lists and turn away rates.
The ACT Government is currently forming the first Action Plan of the Mental Health Workforce Strategy, of which the MHCC ACT is an active participant.
Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson said the government had recognised the issues facing community-managed services, which had resulted in the Counting the Costs: Sustainable Funding of the Community Services Sector Report.
The government responded to this report in February, agreeing to prioritise early intervention and prevention, and agreeing in principle to five other recommendations.
Ms Davidson said differences between community-managed and clinical services, including use of volunteers and charitable donations, meant different service cost structures needed to be considered when allocating funds.
“The ongoing delivery of mental health services by community managed organisations is strongly supported by the ACT Government with increased funding being allocated in the ACT Government budgets [such as $2 million over four years for the Sector Sustainability Program],” she said.
“The community-managed mental health workforce represents a significant component of and plays a critical role in the ACT mental health service system … [it] is a key component of the mental health workforce covered by the Mental Health Workforce Strategy and their needs are being considered in the development of the first Action Plan.”
The first Action Plan is expected to be delivered by the end of the year.