Businesses may feel effects of ‘alarming’ shortage of psychiatrists

Latest data shows huge increase in vacancies, with implications for employees with long-term mental health conditions

The rate of unfilled NHS consultant psychiatrist posts in England has doubled over the last six years, according to a survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, raising concerns that increased waiting times could negatively affect employees with mental health problems.

The analysis of NHS workforce data showed one in 10 (9.9 per cent) consultant posts were currently vacant, up from one in 20 (5.3 per cent) in 2013. This translated to 568 empty posts out of a total 5,730 consultant psychiatrist roles throughout the NHS services in England. 

The news comes at a time of “soaring demand” for mental health care, with a shortage of psychiatrists contributing towards lengthy waiting times for treatment.

The college said the impact on patients’ lives could be “devastating”, noting that more than a third (34 per cent) of British adults diagnosed with mental illness faced problems at work, including potentially losing their job, which were linked to long waiting times for NHS mental health services.

The survey found vacancy rates were particularly high in areas of mental health care already prioritised by the government for improvement, such as children’s mental health services and adult services. 

Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the findings were “very alarming” and raised doubts as to whether government plans to improve mental healthcare would be delivered if empty posts were not filled. 

“We know exactly what is needed and action must be taken now to implement practical solutions that will make the NHS a better place to work,” Burn said. “We must urgently address some of the burning issues around the NHS workforce, such as the pensions crisis and unacceptable levels of work-related stress.”

Suzie Bailey, director of leadership and organisational development at The King’s Fund, said the health and wellbeing of NHS workers was a "critical issue" to help address workforce shortages highlighted by the Royal College of Psychiatrist's report. 

"Healthcare managers need to understand the important impact that everyday leadership behaviours have on workplace culture, ensuring that staff have the support they need to undertake their roles," Bailey said. "Campaigns to attract new people into psychiatry are welcome but we need to find ways to retain the current workforce at the same time."

Last year, research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found more than half of adults diagnosed with a mental illness waited more than four weeks from referral to see an NHS mental health specialist. A quarter (24 per cent) waited more than three months, and 6 per cent faced wait times of more than a year. 

Of those surveyed, 36 per cent of adults said lack of access to mental health services resulted in breakdowns of key relationships or divorce, while a similar number (32 per cent) said it led to financial troubles, including getting into debt.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists asked NHS mental health organisations and private providers throughout the UK about the numbers of psychiatrists in non-training grade posts and their current vacancies. It estimated vacancies across the UK sat at 9.6 per cent.

Wales had the highest vacancy rate for full-time consultant posts in psychiatry at 12.7 per cent, while in Scotland 9.7 per cent of posts were unfilled and in Northern Ireland 7.5 per cent.

The college called on the government to encourage more junior doctors to choose psychiatry as a career and put in place practical measures that would make the lives of future healthcare professionals easier, including ensuring junior doctors had hot food to eat at night when on call and ending delays in getting paid if they moved from one hospital to another.

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said it recognised the problem the Royal College of Psychiatrists had identified and added that filling the mental healthcare posts was a “key priority” for the government.

The DHSC spokesperson said: “Expanding the mental health workforce is a key priority – we know more work is needed to meet rising demand [for] services and to ensure patients are getting the best treatment.

“Our Interim NHS People Plan set out immediate actions we will take to fill vacancies and secure the staff we need for the future – including addressing pensions tax concerns, increasing university clinical placements by [more than] 5,000 and bolstering the workforce through greater international recruitment.”

Previous research found a third of workers suffering from mental ill-health felt their condition worsened over the previous 12 months, with many unaware of support systems put in place by their employer to support them. And 34 per cent of the 2,000 UK employees surveyed by health tech start-up Mynurva said their mental ill-health had become “more severe” in 2018. 

More than half (54 per cent) said they were unaware of any formal support structures within their organisation to help with their mental health, while 49 per cent did not feel there was an appropriate culture in their workplace to enable people to open up about their mental wellbeing.

Dr Zain Sikafi, CEO of Mynurva, said the negative stigma surrounding mental ill-health could make it “incredibly difficult” for workers to come forward and seek help for their conditions. “The research shows the need for a fresh approach to mental health, and I encourage employers to review the current systems they have in place to support the wellbeing of their staff,” Sikafi said.