By Andy Bell

Centre for Mental Health was commissioned by the NHS Confederation Mental Health Network to explore what the mental health workforce of the future should look like. We wanted to look beyond the current strategy to identify what kind of workforce will be needed in the next decade or so and what challenges that presents now in ensuring we have the right people in place when we need them.

It takes time, sometimes many years, to recruit, train and develop health and care staff. So in planning for the future we need to start making preparations now for the kind of services we want in a decade’s time. In a new report, The future of the mental health workforce, we sought the views and experiences of people with personal and professional experience of mental health services in England. We held consultation events and focus groups across the country to understand the workforce as it is today, people’s hopes for the future of mental health support, and the implications for the development of the workforce in the coming years.

We need to start making preparations now for the kind of services we want in a decade’s time

We found that there is widespread support for change in the way mental health services work in the future, with profound implications for the way we recruit, train and manage the people who provide them. We found that it is often difficult to recruit people into mental health professions, that mental health services often face high levels of staff turnover and vacancy rates. And we found that skills and knowledge about mental health are not nearly as widespread as they need to be to meet growing levels of demand for mental health support.

Throughout the research for the report, the importance of primary care, and general practice in particular, was emphasised consistently. Stakeholders were keen for GPs and other practice staff to have more training about mental health in order to build up knowledge in primary care. There was also support for investing in new roles of people with specialist mental health expertise working in primary care and for secondary care staff to be given the time and space to provide advice and consultancy to GPs when they need it.

The report identifies a wide range of skills and capabilities that the mental health workforce of the future will need. These include being trained and supported in coproduction and engagement (with families and communities as well as individuals); being able to provide education and consultancy to the wider health workforce (and more widely, for example with schools, criminal justice and employment services); and being trauma informed throughout their work.

Participants throughout the research emphasised the need for mental health services to support the mental health of their staff, to become ‘compassionate organisations’ that enable people to work flexibly, that prioritise wellbeing

The report calls for a wider range of career choices to be available to all mental health workers, including time spent in the voluntary and community sector as well as health and local government, and opportunities to develop careers throughout working life: especially for those reaching the ‘final third’ of their careers who may be seeking new challenges and work patterns. A wider range of opportunities should also become available to people with lived experience of mental ill health, and in new or expanding roles such as peer support, employment and housing.

A crucial element of building a mental health workforce for the future will be for organisations to give greater attention to the wellbeing of the people they employ. Participants throughout the research emphasised the need for mental health services to support the mental health of their staff, to become ‘compassionate organisations’ that enable people to work flexibly, that prioritise wellbeing and that celebrate the difference they make to people’s lives. With recently published data suggesting a significant recent rise in long-term sickness absence among mental health care workers, the need for all employers to place a priority on the wellbeing of their workforce could not be more compelling or urgent.

The future of the mental health workforce sets out a long-term vision for mental health services and the people who work in them. But we need to take action now to achieve that vision over time: to create, sustain, support and nurture the workforce for mental health support in the years to come.