Industrial Action by DHB Psychologists: A Letter to Hon Chris Hipkins MP from Bridget Young, Registered Clinical Psychologist

14 November 2019
Hon. Chris Hipkins
MP for Rimutaka

Dear Chris,

I’m writing to you as my local MP in Upper Hutt.

You may not be aware that for the past three months, Clinical Psychologists working in DHBs across the country have been on partial strikes. This has included refusing to accept new clients, with-holding groups, and limiting ourselves to 2 hours of face to face contact a day. You may also not be aware of the issues we are striking for, so let me highlight them for you.

You are part of a government that has committed to increasing the mental health workforce, yet there is a 34% vacancy rate for psychologists in DHBs across the country, which will continue to diminish if our current conditions continue. This has resulted in increased workloads for those of us left, as well as difficulty finding people to provide professional supervision to coworkers, or the increase in trainee psychologists that universities are being asked to train.

Looking at workload, I’ve been told that a senior psychologist at my level is expected to do 10 hours of face-to-face contact a week (less than a new grad as my clients are more complex) and then the rest of the time is spent attending meetings, supervising other psychologists and interns, crisis contact, and the odd assessment. I actually have 16 face-to-face contacts a week, see at least one crisis a week that is acute (suicidal, medically compromised and needing hospitalisation due to an eating disorder, engaging in severe self-harm), assess a new client for the service fortnightly, attend 4 hours of in service meetings each week, supervise an intern and a new graduate, and document all of this in case the worst happens and a client dies. This workload is why we routinely work many more hours than we are paid for, and why so many people leave, because it still isn’t enough compared to what is needed and what we are asked for.

For all this work, we get paid 35% less than those of similar experience working in Corrections, and 75% less than private psychologists. To add insult to this, clinical psychologists in the APEX union (those of us who are currently striking) get paid around $10,000 a year less than those under PSA, and we are not even being offered pay parity with them. There are now plans to dilute our profession by replacing us with ‘Wellness Practitioners’ and others less qualified as our job is seen as pretty easy.

Here are the things that these other professions would not be able to do due to a lack of our robust clinical training: Neuropsychological testing following a brain injury or to test for cognitive deficits or intellectual disabilities/developmental disorders Assessments for learning disorders Court ordered reports, including fitness to stand trial Training of new clinical psychologists or supervision on intern psychologists Diagnosis that will be accepted by services aimed to support families of those on the autism spectrum These things are a few, but surely it is clear how necessary these skills are. Psychologists are some of the most highly trained professionals working in mental health in this country, and because we provide evidence based treatment, we also provide the best ‘bang for your bucks’ in terms of identifying the most effective treatment as proven by research for the presenting problem in order to get people through mental health services quickly with good results.

In response to our recent strikes, DHBs approached cabinet for approval of funding to make us a better to offer to end the strike. This was turned down, with a ‘who cares’ attitude to the idea that psychologists will continue to leave en mass from the DHBs. In order to retain those already in the jobs, draw new psychologists in (instead of losing them to corrections, ACC or the private sector), I would implore you to encourage your colleagues to reconsider. Given our most recent offer was worse than our last, more than 80% of psychologists have voted to continue striking, and we are in fact more determined than ever not to give in. We are even thinking of new ways to impact the sector to get our pretty reasonable demands met. As you can hopefully see, we are not just in this for the money. We love the work that we do, and we care deeply for our clients and their families, but in the face of diminishing numbers, increasing workload, increasing risk in the cases we work for, and poor remuneration, the love of the job is rapidly losing the ability to keep us in the job.

Bridget Young

Contact APEX