Stress in mental health professionals: from researcher to sufferer.
For over 20 years I have been studying occupational stress in mental health professionals, mainly nursing staff. Along with other colleagues I have conducted a number of large surveys. The Claybury CPN Stress Study, showed it was more stressful to work in the community than in a hospital setting, but that community work was more satisfying. The bulk of the extant occupational stress research has however been problem focussed. Researchers have looked at how burned out staff have been or what percentage could be identified as “psychiatric cases.” “Caseness” has been operationally defined as scoring over a threshold score on the Goldberg General Health Questionnaire. Like some other psychology questionnaires, this is a misnomer, as it is is not assessing general health, but rather psychological distress. In another paper we suggested that “Burnout was much ado about nothing.” From combining data from several large surveys, we were able to show that only 5% of mental health nurses met strict criteria for burnout, whereas 10% had no symptoms of burnout at all. While there have been scores of studies looking at the assessment of stress in mental health nurses, there has been much less emphasis on intervention. As part of my doctoral research, I conducted two small randomised controlled studies, first of a social support based programme and second, a self-esteem based programme. The former intervention proved unsuccessful, but the self-esteem programme proved more beneficial. This was very much the acting period of my work as a stress researcher. In 2006, I was asked to move from a clinical academic post to a full-time clinical position, as I was not publishing enough prestigious publications. I threw myself into my new clinical role and over the next few years was involved in developing a number of pioneering developments around the new recovery approach. Amongst these were the development of a film about recovery, made by a woman with a mental illness and featuring four people with psychosis. The pressures of all this new work, on top of existing clinical commitments took its toll and the stress researcher became burned out himself. This was part of the reason I took early retirement from the Health Service. Now in an academic job, I begin to understand these issues much more. The focus of occupational stress research needs towards a more positive perspective, drawing from new developments in positive psychology and wellbeing.