Strategies for Navigating the Mental Health Workforce Shortage

Employee using a tablet

The United States is currently experiencing a major mental health workforce shortage. Many behavioral health and human services (BHHS) organizations are struggling to hire and retain enough mental health professionals to meet growing patient demand. This can lead to elongated wait times for patients and increase stress for current mental healthcare providers.

For organizations struggling with staffing, it’s important to understand the causes of this shortage and how to build strategies to address it. There are strategies and tools that you can leverage to maintain operational efficiency and a high quality of care while working amid the widespread staffing shortage.

Why Is There a Mental Health Workforce Shortage?

There are several factors contributing to the mental healthcare workforce shortage in the United States, making it a tough issue to tackle on a large scale. Here are the main contributors.

Increased Patient Demand

Mental health professionals are in high demand right now. According to a recent study conducted by KFF and CNN, 90% of Americans believe that we are currently in the midst of a mental health crisis. Demand for mental health services rose during the COVID-19 pandemic and has remained high. In many areas and specialties, the demand for behavioral health services is greater than the available providers. This has created a shortage and made it hard for people to get their mental health needs met.

High Rates of Burnout

Due to the long hours required and the emotionally demanding nature of mental health roles, workers in this field are often more prone to employee burnout. Burnout is a form of workplace stress that causes physical and emotional exhaustion. Employees suffering from burnout often become disengaged or end up leaving their roles (or the industry altogether).

Competing for a Limited Candidate Pool

Behavioral health organizations often struggle to attract and engage qualified applicants for open roles. Mental health workers such as clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, nurses, and psychiatrists have strict requirements for licensure. Due to these specific education and credential requirements, the candidate pool is relatively restricted.

Behavioral health organizations often also have to compete with other specialties for qualified candidates. Since many BHHS organizations operate as nonprofits, they tend to have lower revenue than specialties like primary care, even when operated for profit. This is because Medicaid, Medicare, and other insurance programs provide lower reimbursement rates compared to physical health specialty. These reimbursement disparities can make it challenging for mental health organizations to offer the high salaries needed to compete for top candidates.

Geographic Challenges

Some geographic regions are more heavily impacted by the current behavioral health workforce shortage. There are a large number of mental health professional shortage areas across the country, and accessing care in these areas can be particularly difficult for patients. 

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), 122 million people in America currently live in shortage areas. Behavioral healthcare organizations in these underserved communities and rural areas often have the greatest difficulty finding qualified mental health professionals to hire.

The Impact of the Mental Health Workforce Shortage

Mental health workforce shortage: employee talking to her therapist

The mental health workforce shortage makes it difficult for patients experiencing mental health crises or suffering from behavioral health conditions to access care. When there are fewer behavioral health providers available, patients often have to wait longer to be seen by a professional. For those struggling with mental illness or substance use disorders, a delay in care can greatly harm their wellbeing.

On the other side of the equation, the workforce shortage also puts increased stress on behavioral health professionals. When BHHS organizations are understaffed, employees often have to work additional shifts or take on increased caseloads to ensure that patients can be seen. This worsens the mental health field’s burnout problem, potentially leading to further turnover and a bigger staffing problem.

Limiting Organizational Growth

Organizations are aware of the increased demand for services and want to meet it, but the mental health workforce shortage is inhibiting that growth in many cases. In the 2024 Behavioral Health Industry Trends Report, 65% of behavioral health leaders surveyed reported that their organization plans to grow or expand their services this year. However, 70% reported that a lack of qualified candidates was a major challenge. The inability to find qualified and available mental health workers, along with the high turnover rates in the field, make it harder for organizations to grow. 

Strategies to Attract and Retain Talent During the Mental Health Workforce Shortage

Mental health workforce shortage: employees using a laptop

Improve Your Recruiting Process

Mental health providers are in high demand, so it’s important to make an excellent first impression with an efficient and communicative recruitment process. Two of the top candidate frustrations are poor communication and the process taking too long. These are very common issues, but there are solutions available to address them.

Using an applicant tracking system is a great way to make candidate review and communication more efficient. Some HR software platforms, including ContinuumCloud’s human capital management system, have applicant tracking systems built in to create a unified system for recruiting and employee management. Features such as a convenient candidate review dashboard, templated communications, and one-click job posting that sends your open position out to several major job boards, can help employers shorten the hiring process and give candidates a better experience.

Use Workforce Analytics to Understand Your Recruiting and Retention Challenges

While there are plenty of industry-wide HR challenges to keep in mind, leaders can gain a clearer picture of their organization’s biggest recruiting and retention issues with workforce analytics. Metrics such as time-to-hire, offer acceptance rates, and the number of applicants for a role, can help you uncover which step of the recruiting process you’re struggling at. 

You can use this information to build new recruiting strategies or improve efficiency at certain steps in the process. For example, if you notice a high time-to-hire rate, it may be time to invest in a recruiting management system to speed up application review and interview scheduling to provide a better candidate experience. Software tools like ContinuumCloud’s HCM that combine business intelligence and applicant tracking can be particularly helpful in monitoring and acting on your recruiting data.

Craft a Strong Communication Strategy

Just as poor communication can be frustrating for candidates, current employees may also become disengaged if their employers aren’t adequately communicative. Nobody likes feeling left in the dark about what’s going on within the organization, nor do hardworking employees like to feel that their work is going unnoticed.

Maintaining regular communication with your whole team can be arduous if you have staff spread out across different worksites or working remotely while providing telehealth, so it’s helpful to craft a digital communication strategy to reach employees wherever they are. ContinuumCloud offers HR communication tools to support organization-wide communication, including a Company News dashboard that makes it easy to share updates and publicly recognize star employees.

Invest Time Into Employee Development

Investing in your current employee’s growth and development can help you retain them. Employees often look for roles outside the organization when they feel that there isn’t a path available for internal promotion. 

Setting clear goals for employees, providing training opportunities, and engaging in regular performance management conversations, can help employees and managers remain engaged in the team member’s growth plan. Keeping up with all of this can be challenging when working in a busy healthcare system, but digital tools like an HCM system can simplify the process. With ContinuumCloud’s HCM, managers can track progress on performance goals and learning objectives, assign trainings, and send out templated performance messages.

Engage Mental Health Staff With ContinuumCloud’s HCM Platform

Behavioral health and human services organizations experience some distinct challenges when it comes to recruiting and retention, and traditional HR solutions don’t always address these unique concerns. BHHS organizations need a customized solution tailored specifically to supporting the mental health workforce.

ContinuumCloud’s human capital management platform was built specifically with the needs of BHHS organizations in mind. From credential management to one-click job posting, the platform can help reduce your administrative burden and support your organization’s recruiting and retention goals.

Contact us to learn more about how ContinuumCloud’s HCM platform can help you amp up your recruiting and retention efforts.

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