A HEALTH trust is 'concerned' over the struggle to recruit enough staff for Oxfordshire’s mental health wards.

For more than three months, staffing levels on three of the county’s wards did not meet the required level of 85 per cent of planned working hours.

Speaking during Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust’s board meeting last week, director of nursing and clinical standards Ros Alstead said: “There is a small percentage of wards which are of concern and have not been reaching the staffing levels required.”

At one of the wards, Vaughan Thomas at the Warneford Hospital, the use of agency staff peaked at 39.2 per cent from February to August and the number of unfilled shifts remains above 20 per cent.

Unfilled shifts at the Sandford Ward in The Fulbrook Centre were above 15 per cent during the same period and the use of agency staff peaked at 37.5 per cent.

Throughout the eight-week period, the trust confirmed all wards were staffed to safe levels, however this was achieved by staff working extra hours and shifts and with the use of flexible or bank staff both from the trusts internal bank ‘staffing solutions’ and agency staff.

Last year the trust spent £18m on agency workers, of which £3.6m represents 'agency premium'.

Ms Alstead added: “An area which we have been working on in terms of retention is in adult mental health.

“We have been talking to some of the senior clinical members of staff on the ward who have said it would be helpful to have some form of administrative post to help them with all the paperwork, so they can then spend more time on clinical care.”

From July 17 to August 13 staffing levels on nine wards did not meet the required 85 per cent.

These included: Glyme, Phoenix, Ashurst, Lambourn House and Kingfisher wards in Littlemore mental health centre, Sandford ward, Vaughan Thomas, Ruby ward in the Whiteleaf Centre, Cotswold House in Oxford and Chaffron ward in Milton Keynes.

Ms Alstead said: “As part of the process, senior clinical staff are providing support to ward teams and are reviewing ward staffing levels on an on-going basis, shift by shift basis.

“An escalation process for the management of staff shortages is in place within each clinical area, in order to manage staffing safely on a shift by shift basis.”

The trust said it would be taking action to increase the number of nurses, including working with agency staff to try and move them onto contracts and linking up with Oxford Brookes University students to encourage them to take on roles.

Oxford Health will also be working in partnership with Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to increase recruitment of student nurses.

It hopes that by March next year, it will have recruited an additional 800 people across the trust to provide double the number of hours currently given by flexible workers.