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Working on our workforce: 2022 Mid-year forum wrap-up

Thanks to everyone who came to our 2022 Mid-year forum on 21 July! We had an excellent time discussing mental health workforce strategies, networking, catching up and celebrating the achievements of the ACT community-managed mental health sector.

MHCC ACT’s Acting CEO, Corinne Dobson, opened the event with an overview of some of the challenges facing our sector, including the need for a mental health workforce strategy that includes community-managed organisations. Although the ACT mental health workforce strategy was due for release in March 2022, it was still with Cabinet for discussion at the time of the forum.

Corinne set the scene with a discussion of how mental health workforce strategies cover workforce diversity and inclusion, peer workforces, the availability of capable staff when and where they are needed, continuous training and development, and positive leadership and workplace cultures.

She then raised the challenge of defining the mental health workforce and how community-managed organisations often get overlooked when decision-makers think of the mental health sector, favouring those working in clinical and acute care.

The lack of available data demonstrates this. Although the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare collects information on the numbers of psychiatrists, mental health nurses and psychologists, there is no systemic data collection for community mental health workers.

With that background, we then heard from four experts in that field.

The first speech was from Bill Gye OAM, CEO of Community Mental Health Australia. Bill picked up Corinne’s point about the need for data about the workforce to establish the sector’s worth and to develop a pathway to where the sector needs to be in future. On this note, Bill expressed his desire for a national psychosocial support program outside the NDIS that would help those not eligible for NDIS support and simultaneously build the peer workforce.

Of course, a significant issue is labour supply within the sector and its link to chronic underfunding. Although the funding requires significant work by and with governments, Bill suggested we could encourage workers into community-managed mental health by clearly communicating the many benefits, as well as the importance of the peer workforce.

“From being helped by others to helping others is such a great pathway.”

The next presentation was by Tim Heffernan, Deputy Commissioner with The Mental Health Commission of NSW. His focus was primarily on the increasing role of the peer workforce in services, and he started with its importance in sector reform.

“The mental health system is broken. We hear that time and time again. It’s important to understand that, if something’s broken, sometimes it’s not always the best thing just to repair, to put Band-Aids on what was previously existing.”

Tim views the peer workforce as a resource that can be a lever for much-needed reform within the mental health sector. It can also bring community and compassion back into mental health workplaces. He was adamant that the significant data supporting the impact of the peer workforce needs to be clearly articulated in a system that is too often driven only by biomedical data.

Our third speaker was Dr Elizabeth Moore, Coordinator-General, Office for Mental Health and Wellbeing, ACT Health. After providing an overview of the process of developing the upcoming

ACT Mental Health Strategy, Elizabeth built on Tim’s comment about the need for compassion within the mental health sector. She noted that the ACT Government has started embedding a focus on compassion in the clinical workforce and has worked with educational institutions to include it in the curriculum for qualifications related to mental health and other professions that people with mental health conditions often interact with.

Elizabeth raised that, with the new Federal Government, there are opportunities to raise the profile of the mental health sector, particularly from a workforce perspective. She asked for the support of those in the community-managed mental health sector to implement the ACT mental health workforce strategy.

“Once it’s endorsed, we need all the energy we can get to coordinate the actions. We need disruptors.”

She ended with a discussion on the importance of lived and learned experience of mental health, and how we can use those to eliminate stigma and move forward as a community.

Last but not least, we heard from Patrick Bates, Lead organiser at the Australian Services Union. Patrick began by discussing the need for community-managed mental health sector workers to be appropriately valued, both socially and regarding remuneration, leave and workplace conditions.

He then moved into the need for safe workplaces and the recognition of psychosocial hazards, given the community sector is considered ‘at risk’ for psychosocial injury.

“[The community] sector had the highest growth in workers’ compensation claims in the ACT of any industry.” The leading causes of these claims were bullying and work pressure, which also resulted in high rates of people planning to leave the sector.

Patrick recommended that service providers, workers and unions work together to eliminate and minimise workplace hazards, as well as on advocacy for appropriate funding.

He also mentioned the need for specific recognition of the needs of peer workers and how their essential work should be rewarded with appropriate remuneration and supports.

With the speeches completed, we moved into a panel discussion and Q&A.

Corinne asked the panel about how to achieve a coordinated approach, given the many and varied workforce strategies and plans at the national and state/territory level. The panel discussed the opportunities provided by the new Federal Government and the move towards a wellbeing economy, which has the potential to increase the profile of the sector and result in an attitudinal shift. They also raised the importance of developing relationships across the mental health and wider health and community sectors.

The next question was about workplace measures to improve staff mental health and reduce hazards. Patrick’s top point was the need to identify and consult with staff on hazards, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

Elizabeth then moved the discussion to enabling staff to better care for their mental health, a point Bill echoed while noting the irony of the poor mental health of many mental health workers. Regarding the peer workforce, Tim raised the importance of managers understanding the role and impact of peer workers and the need for peer supervision.

This conversation led to a comment from the audience on how chronic underfunding is causing staff burnout and how there seems to be no progress despite the well-documented need for change. The panel discussed the desperate need for a system outside of the NDIS, which is incorporated into the community, as well as the need to address stigma and the social drivers of mental health conditions.

At the end of the panel discussion, an audience member raised the need for trust, both within the sector and having the sector be trusted, culturally diverse and appropriate to consumer needs.

Corinne thanked Bill, Tim, Elizabeth and Patrick for their excellent remarks and provided them with artworks made for the event by Greg Joseph from Burrunju Art Gallery.

We finished the event with networking, celebration and catching up over some canapes, which continued for quite some time!

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