Hospital cuts mental health services amid pandemic

April 23, 2020
Therapy session

Community mental health services in a large regional hospital have been severely reduced, under the guise of preserving the workforce if COVID-19 hits the sector, a mental health worker* told Green Left.

The worker said that management’s decision to reduce eight community mental health teams to one has been implemented without the normal scrutiny. “They gave us just three days notice to implement the biggest changes to the mental health service in my living memory. In doing so, they were able to avoid the usual processes,” the worker said.

Management told staff that the changes were necessary to prepare for a possible 40% depletion in the workforce. They used the COVID-19 lockdown as the reason.

Staff now work from two different sites. The worker said that the speed at which the changes happened were “unprecedented” and led to workers feeling very distressed and worried about their employment.

Initially staff were told they had to work on a rotating roster between two sites, including working from home.

This has posed several clinical and occupational health and safety issues. Special mental health areas, such as those for children, adolescents and the aged, have been dissolved. This means that the staff feel inadequately prepared and out of their depth.

“There is now an expectation that we have to be an expert in all areas of mental health”, the health worker said.

“One of my colleagues described the working conditions as a shemozzle. There is no continuity of care and, without regular staff monitoring the same patients, there is an increase in the risk of the person becoming sicker. We are constantly worried about our patients relapsing as a result.

“In addition, some staff are being redeployed to other areas, such as bed-based services, where they feel ill-prepared to work.”

Mental health workers are questioning the logic of creating such an upheaval and uncertainty in this time.

Not only is it bad for patient care and outcomes, it also increases the risk of cross infection, with large numbers of staff moving through both sites.

“It would only take one infected worker, or patient, to knock off a whole workforce and a whole lot of vulnerable patients, something management were trying to avoid in the first place”, they said.

Social distancing is an ongoing problem in the work spaces: often cars and offices do not have the necessary hand rub and alcohol wipes to keep areas sterile. Hot desking, where people interchange their work spaces, also increases the risk of infection.

Management is now refusing to commit to return to pre-COVID-19 work conditions. No doubt it sees this an opportunity to make the changes permanent.

The flatlining of workers’ career paths and management’s refusal to rectify the discrepancy in pay rates between staff doing the same work has highlighted this. Management is also displaying its total lack of respect towards a dedicated workforce who have accepted these changes in good faith, by putting community safety first.

The increase in stress alongside the inadequate equipment and supplies is just the tip of the iceberg.

Unions have been on the back foot; they have yet to mobilise any real fight back. So far, they have been hamstrung by the pandemic laws, which are being used to roll back wages and conditions.

If the mental health sector is anything to go by, unions and workers do need to mobilise for a big fight to resist wage freezes and cuts, and the rapid erosion of conditions.

[*The worker did not wish to be named for fear of losing their job.]

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