Rise in violent attacks on NHS mental health staff
Nurses blame staff shortages for surge in incidents, survey finds
Two out of five NHS mental health workers have been abused or attacked by a patient over the last year as services have become overstretched because of staff shortages, a new report reveals.
Staff have been kicked, punched and headbutted while some had a patient try to strangle them, according to a survey of more than 1,000 people working in mental health care.
In a catalogue of incidents one worker was repeatedly punched to the floor, another suffered a broken nose while others were bitten and spat at. In all, 42% of those surveyed by the trade union Unison had experienced some form of aggression or violence in the previous 12 months.
Some staff said that being on the receiving end of such behaviour “goes with the job”. One said: “On a daily basis I would say that patients are verbally aggressive. Rather than being an unusual occurrence I now consider this almost a default position.”
Another described “being punched and spat at when supporting patients with their personal care, or unexpected physical abuse from patients that are confused and worked up”.
A third of the nurses and other mental health staff surveyed believe that violent incidents have become more common over the last 12 months, and 87% blame staff shortages.
“Severe staff shortages mean fewer mental health nurses to deal with a rising number of users with complex needs,” said Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health. “As a result many staff are having to work alone, making violent attacks more likely.” The number of mental health nurses in the NHS has fallen by more than 10% since 2010.
Separate findings, uncovered by the BBC radio programme 5 Live Investigates to be broadcast today, show that attacks on mental health staff have risen by about a quarter over the last five years. Freedom of information requests to NHS bodies across the UK show that the number of incidents rose from 33,620 in 2012-13 to 42,692 in 2016-17, although the increase was only seen in England.
Attacks include a healthcare assistant working in mental healthcare being stabbed to death and another worker having part of their thumb bitten off. Mental health patients assaulted other patients more than 17,000 times last year, the figures also reveal.
Unison’s findings, based on responses last month, paint a picture of an overstretched workforce struggling to deliver high-quality care to vulnerable patients in increasingly difficult circumstances.
Six in 10 staff said they were unable to provide proper care to their patients because they did not have enough time to do their job properly. Three-quarters feel stressed at least once a week because of their job pressures and 36% say they feel stressed every day. One in five (22%) had taken sick leave over the last year as a result of stress and burnout. Many regularly work unpaid overtime.
Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “These are truly shocking findings. It is essential that we expand the workforce with properly trained staff so that care can be provided that is safe for everyone.”
The Department of Health said: “It’s completely unacceptable for NHS staff to face violence or aggression at work. All incidents should be reported and we expect the NHS to work with the police to seek the strongest possible action.”
Ministers recently pledged to boost the NHS mental health workforce in England by 21,000 by 2021 to help cope with rising demand and ensure patients receive good quality care.
Wendy Burn, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the findings were ‘ truly shocking’.