Warrnambool Base Hospital in Victoria's south west is grappling with a range of long and short-term issues as it battles to maintain its mental health workforce.
In the past two weeks the hospital has advertised eight mental health jobs, close to half its total vacancies.
South West Healthcare's director of mental health services Richard Campion said the vacancies were nothing out of the ordinary but healthcare workers and union officials said they were a sign of high staff turnover and difficulties sourcing qualified workers in regional areas.
Victoria is facing a state-wide shortage of mental health workers, a deficit that hits hardest in regional areas, which have historically struggled to attract and retain healthcare professionals. The shortage has been compounded by poor wages and working conditions in mental health care, which has prompted some staff to leave the sector with many more planning to follow.
Warrnambool Base Hospital's mental health services haven't kept pace with growing regional demand with staff increasingly stretched. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, driving cases of mental ill-health but stifling worker movement and recruitment of new staff into the sector.
In May the state government announced $10.9 million for the hospital to add five new acute mental health beds. The beds will require at least seven new mental health staff and are supposed to be in operation by March 2022, which is just over six months away. Mr Campion said none of the currently advertised jobs were new positions, they were all replacing staff who had quit or moved into other roles.
Regionally there's a terrible staffing crisis, our mental health system is at breaking point.Paul Healey
Health and Community Services Union secretary Paul Healey said even once the hospital filled those positions, it would need 15 more mental health workers to meet the community's needs. This figure didn't include the seven staff that would be needed for the five new acute care beds.
Mr Campion declined to comment on HACSU's staffing shortfall figures, saying that vacancies had fallen in 2021.
He said the recent round of job advertisements demonstrated SWH's "continued commitment to ensuring maximum staffing of clinical mental health" and had prompted "multiple high-quality applicants".
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But Mr Healey said he couldn't see where new workers would come from.
A HACSU survey of Victorian mental health workers from late June showed 10 per cent were "actively planning to leave the workforce" with a further 25 per cent unhappy and exploring other career options.
Despite an unprecedented state government investment into the sector following the Royal Commission into the Victorian Mental Health system, mental health workers haven't received a pay rise since April 2019 and are now paid less than general healthcare workers, Mr Healey said.
Enterprise bargaining negotiations with the state government over wages and working conditions began in May last year with the government refusing to pay mental health workers the same amount as their general healthcare colleagues. On Tuesday the government issued a formal offer that Mr Healey said would again leave mental health workers worse off.
"It's a slap in the face," Mr Healey said of the offer. He also said if an agreement was struck, there would be no back pay to cover the period since the previous agreement expired in June last year.
The Standard sent a range of questions to Mental Health Minister James Merlino, including why the government wouldn't offer mental health workers the same wages as other healthcare workers, but his office declined to respond directly.
"We will continue to negotiate in good faith for a new Mental Health Enterprise Agreement for Victoria's hardworking mental health staff," a Department of Health spokesperson said.
Mr Healey disagreed the government was bargaining in good faith, saying it was "not showing any intent to come to an agreement".
"They're just playing games. They know every day without an agreement is money saved for them and money lost for our members," he said.
On Wednesday 53 mental health staff temporarily walked off the job at WBH to protest the ongoing stalemate.
"We never wanted it to get to this stage ... (but) the current wages and conditions are absolutely unacceptable," local HACSU official Lisa Andrew said.
Ms Andrew counted 12 mental health positions at the hospital that hadn't been filled as of Thursday, saying staff were regularly having to cover shifts and work overtime. "Burnout is an issue, and exhausted workers make mistakes, but the hospital is also having to pay out overtime for these workers doing double shifts, which isn't economical," she said.
The Royal Commission flagged recruitment and retention of mental health workers as a critical problem in the sector with regional areas singled out for special attention.
The government has allocated $11 million out of its $3.8 billion "mental health budget" to fund a rural and regional workforce incentive scheme but was unable to specify when the scheme would begin or what it would involve. Mr Healey said the only way to attract new workers to regional areas was through direct entry training. "That way you get people to change careers because you get paid to study and learn," he said.
Mr Campion acknowledged "challenges remain" in maintaining staff but said SWH would "continue to advertise and promote our vacancies so that our community and hard-working staff are supported through filling as many of our vacant positions as we can".