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The Behavioral Health Workforce Crisis and its Impact on Families

The behavioral health field has been enduring a workforce shortage for some time. In 2021 alone, direct support organizations saw a turnover rate of 43%. On top of that, research has shown an increase in the demand for behavioral and mental health services since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medical doctor / nurse with a help wanted sign

The increased workload with a shorthanded workforce is putting the onus on behavioral healthcare providers to bear the brunt of the workforce crisis. This not only leads to greater stress on behavioral healthcare staff but may also lead to clients receiving inadequate care.

While the difficulties this has posed for human services organizations is well documented, the impact it has on families has yet to be widely discussed. In this article, we’ll cover the effects of the workforce crisis on behavioral health clients and their families, as well as the homelife of the remaining behavioral workforce.

Impact on Clients and their Families

As the behavioral health workforce remains understaffed, clients may not get the care they need. Due to overworked staff and large staff-to-patient ratios, as well as the increased risk of absenteeism and turnover related to overwork, agencies run the risk of providing inadequate care for clients. One example of this comes from a study conducted by the American Hospital Association, where researchers found that 100 million Americans live in areas that are experiencing a shortage of psychiatrists.

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Additionally, behavioral health organizations have reported growing wait lists. In one recent study, the National Council for Mental Wellbeing found that 62% of their member organizations have experienced a growth in patient waitlists. As more individuals report symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, these growing waitlists will only compound the logistical complexity that staff shortages create for behavioral health agencies.

When agencies do not have the staff to provide adequate care to their existing clients or take on more clients, this can leave the families of these clients responsible for their mental well-being. As untrained family members attempt to provide this type of care, however, it can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue, as they will provide this care on top of their other responsibilities, such as work, child or elder care, etc. Additionally, untrained family members, while well meaning, may not understand why their loved one behaves in a certain way or the best means to help them cope with their mental or behavioral health issues. This could very well lead to strained familial relationships, making the treatment or recovery persons served all the more difficult.

But clients and their families are not the only ones affected by the behavioral health workforce crisis. Staff members and their own families are now facing very real issues of their own.

The Family Life of Behavioral Healthcare Providers

As turnover and patient waitlists continue to increase, the behavioral health workforce will remain understaffed and overworked. Due to the stressful nature of their work, and the long hours and large patient caseloads they must now work with, many in the field run the risk of adverse mental health effects. The most common of these adverse effects is burnout.

While the implications of burnout at work (distancing from clients, weaker communication, etc.) are well documented, it’s also important to note the impacts that burnout can have on one’s familial life. Indeed, many of the physiological and psychological symptoms can cause providers to become distanced from their loved ones. These symptoms include ailments such as increased fatigue, headaches, anxiety, gastrointestinal issues, and depression.

All of these symptoms of burnout can cause one to withdrawal from friends and family, leading to accidentally strained relationships. In a BBC article, one therapist noted: “My energy levels get lower when I get home, and when that’s happening more consistently, I tend to isolate and not be emotionally available for my family.”

While burnout is certainly a major cause of withdrawal from family life, another is simply the hectic schedule that behavioral health professionals are now expected to keep. In a survey in Behavioral Health News, 77% of therapists reported forgoing sick leave they would have otherwise taken in order to work. Additionally, 66% of these respondents took “substantially less vacation time than they generally would.”

With more clients to see, and less staff with which to treat them, behavioral health organizations are having to lean heavily on their remaining employees. Unfortunately, this means that many staff members do not get to spend enough time with their families. As the workforce crisis continues, this separation from family will only serve to compound the effects of burnout on behavioral health staff.

For more than 11,000 healthcare organizations and 4.5 million caregivers, Relias continues to help clients improve clinical and financial outcomes by reducing variation in care. We help healthcare organizations, their people, and those under their care, get better. Better at identifying problems, addressing them with better knowledge and skills, and better outcomes for all. Learn more at www.relias.com.

Jordan Baker is a Content Marketing Manager at Relias.

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