‘A damning picture of the challenges facing psychologists’

Ella Rhodes reports on a survey of the working lives of members of the British Psychological Society.

A survey of more than 5,700 members of the British Psychological Society has revealed many psychologists fear that financial constraints, widespread vacancies and excessive workloads may be putting patient care at risk. Numerous challenges were flagged in the responses including overload, emotional exhaustion and poor work life balance.

Respondents to the survey, which included students, graduates and chartered psychologists, also highlighted barriers to entering and progressing within the profession. They pointed to a lack of training places, unclear career paths and difficulty accessing continuing professional development. Many cited issues with recruitment; nine in 10 of the psychologists who had responsibility for recruitment and management in the public sector reported that vacant posts had resulted in an increased workload for staff, a drop in the quality of service delivery, and longer waiting lists (particularly in the NHS).

One said ‘austerity measures’ made it hard for patients to access support: ‘On a practical level this means my clinics can be full of people who are not stable or well supported enough to use the intervention my service provides… the sheer task of helping to navigate them to a point where they can be supported is often immense.’

The survey also highlighted a range of organisational issues affecting wellbeing. Three in 10 psychologists said they almost always worked more hours than contracted and one in three said their work was emotionally exhausting – with higher rates among those working in the NHS. More than 40 per cent said they often or almost always felt worn out by the end of the day, rising to almost 90 per cent among those in the NHS.

Overall more than 14 per cent very regularly felt they were so stressed that they wanted to quit their job and 10 per cent had left the profession because of overwork, stress or feeling undervalued. Those respondents working in higher education (69 per cent) were found to be more likely to often or always work more than their contracted hours, and clinical psychologists were most likely to report signs of stress and burnout, with 50 per cent saying they were worn out and two-fifths emotionally exhausted.

The British Psychological Society’s Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa warned that swift action was needed to address the impact that challenging recruitment and organisational issues were having on psychologists and patients. ‘The survey paints a damning picture of the challenges facing psychologists working across all sectors that are increasingly stretched and under-resourced. The NHS Long Term Plan sets out a welcome blueprint for increasing access to psychological treatment, but it requires a rapid and significant expansion of the psychological workforce.’

Bajwa said it would not be possible to deliver an ambitious vision for mental health without a supported psychological workforce. ‘We can’t have a situation where vacancies go unfilled and create additional workload pressures for other psychologists. One-third of respondents to the survey felt the support they receive at work is insufficient, so we need to look urgently at increasing funding and support for career progression, training and wellbeing.’

Harassment, bullying and abuse were also cited by one in seven respondents as having an impact on their wellbeing. This was frequently reported in the not-for-profit sector where staff work in tough areas like substance abuse services, but less likely in a higher education setting.

In addition to workload issues, discrimination was reported by nearly a quarter of members in their workplace in the last 12 months, with gender the most common reason cited (42 per cent), followed by age and ethnicity. The survey also highlighted a significant gender wage gap of around £13,000 and found that male psychologists were around nine per cent more likely to hold senior leadership and management roles.

Bajwa added that the BPS was calling for all political parties to make a firm commitment to addressing these psychological workforce issues. ‘We have outlined in our manifesto a set of priorities which include developing psychological professions as an integral part of the future workforce, establishing strong leadership for psychological professions and protecting the public through stronger regulation. This will ultimately deliver interventions that can both reduce demands on the NHS and other relevant sectors and improve people’s lives.’

- Read more on the survey, and the Society’s Psychological Manifesto.

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