Introduction: The recruitment, retention and training of mental health workers is of major concern in rural Australia, and the Gippsland region of Victoria is no exception. Previous studies have identified a number of common factors in these workforce difficulties, including rurality, difficulties of access to professional development and training, and professional and personal isolation. However, those previous studies have often focused on medicine and been based on the perspectives of practitioners, and have almost ignored the perspectives of managers of rural mental health services. The study reported in this
article sought to contribute to the development of a more sustainable and effective regional mental health workforce by complementing earlier insights with those of leading administrators, managers and senior clinicians in the field.
Methods: The study took a qualitative approach. It conducted semi-structured in-person interviews with 24 managers of health/mental-health services and senior administrators and clinicians working in organisations of varying sizes in the public and private sectors. Thematic content analysis of the transcribed interviews identified core difficulties these managers experienced in the recruitment, retention and training of employees.
Results: The study found that some of the issues commonly resulting in difficulties in recruiting, retaining and developing a trained workforce in rural areas, such as rurality (implying personal and professional isolation, distances to deliver service and small organisations) and a general shortage of trained personnel, are significant in Gippsland. Through its focus on the perspectives of leaders in the management of rural mental health services, however, the study found other key issues that contribute to workforce difficulties. Many, including the unattractive nature of mental health work, the fragmented administration of the mental health system, short-term and tied funding, and shortcomings in training are external to organisations. Interviewees indicated that these issues make it difficult for organisations to support personnel in ways that enhance personal and professional satisfaction and so retention and, in turn, the capacity to recruit new employees. Participants also highlighted issues internal to the organisation. The tensions that flow from the systemic forces require highly creative leadership to negotiate the numerous policy changes, diverse sources of funding, training regimens, worker cohorts and models of care. Managers must nurture the capacity of their own organisation to respond flexibly to the demands, by establishing a responsive culture and structure. They must also encourage the collaboration of their other organisations in their sub-regional grouping and the development of a regional sensibility.
Conclusion: The approach taken by the study, particularly its f focus on a management perspective, revealed that the difficulties experienced are the product of a core tension between a growing demand for mental health care, emerging specialities and technological advances in the field, and a diminished systemic capacity to support organisations in meeting the demand. Resolving
this core tension is a key to the maintenance of a sustainable and effective workforce in Gippsland, and the role of management is crucial to that resolution.
leadership, management, organisational culture, organisational structure, rural mental health workforce