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Mental Health Crisis

Assistant psychologist hopefuls 'left in the dark' by HSE recruitment freeze

Applicants to HSE Assistant Psychologist roles — a stepping stone to crucial further training — have had their hiring process cut short.

PROSPECTIVE ASSISTANT PSYCHOLOGISTS have described feeling “left in the dark” and facing delays and confusion in trying to start their careers due to the HSE recruitment freeze.

A hiring freeze is currently in place across most of the health service as it was on course to “exceed its funded workforce target” for the year, meaning no new positions are being filled aside from some specific exceptions.

In interviews with The Journal, two recent graduates of master-level degrees in psychology described their experiences of the HSE halting their recruitment process for Assistant Psychologist positions.

The roles are seen as highly valuable stepping stones to secure a place on a doctorate programme in order to become a Clinical Psychologist.

Both applicants had received other job offers external to the HSE prior to being placed on the panels but had turned them down to pursue the HSE roles.

“I refused three private assistant psychologist jobs not related to the HSE because I placed so highly on the panel and because I was offered that post. I refused three private jobs, so this has set me back months,” one said.  

“Before the HSE, I had received other acceptances and they were better pay, better overall, and now I’m kicking myself because I should have taken those. I would be working for a much better salary than what the HSE pays,” the other said. 

The HSE introduced a hiring embargo in October for managerial and administrative positions, extending it a week later to include agency staff and junior doctors and then again to encompass almost all roles earlier this month. Exceptions are being made for a select number of roles, including consultants and graduate nurses and midwives.

In a memo written to senior managers, HSE chief executive Bernard Gloster said the health service was on course to “exceed its funded workforce target”.

“We have arrived at the point where we need to address the fact that we are on course to exceed our 2023 funded workforce target, and this is neither affordable or sustainable,” Gloster said in the memo.

He ordered that there were to be “no further offers made or obligations entered into”.

‘Weeks went by and I hadn’t heard anything’

In recent months, a number of psychology graduates have completed interviews and were successfully placed on ‘panels’ — a ranked list of applicants from which available positions are filled, starting with the applicant ranked first, then second, and so on.

Assistant Psychology applicants had been informed where they had placed on the panel and had commenced pre-employment vetting checks.

However, the recruitment freeze has halted their hiring process

Speaking to The Journal, one applicant said: ”I did the interview, I did really well on the panel, and they said you should hear back in a couple of weeks. Weeks went by and I still hadn’t heard anything and got no updates.”

They contacted the HSE in mid-October to ask whether it had any updates about the job offer process and received a response saying that the HSE’s HR team was “unable to advise” on their query.

Near the end of the month, the applicant sent another query and received a response referencing a memo from Bernard Gloster and stating that recruitment had been paused and that HR was waiting for further clarity on the situation.

“I had to contact them. There were no updates so I kept having to make contact,” they said. “Also, Bernard Gloster’s message came out on the 13th of October but it took until the end of October, based on me getting on to them, for them to share that with me.”

“That job offer was frozen and for how long, we don’t know. It may be in the New Year, it may not be. I emailed HR asking will my position on the panel be retained, because I worked so hard,” they said, adding that the HSE’s response simply repeated that the HR team was waiting for further clarity.

They described “being left in the dark about whether the panel be retained, will I be offered a job in January, will I have to do another interview — it costs money to commute to do that interview, it’s quite far from my home”.

I was successful at the HSE interview and started the process but they didn’t commit to it. They didn’t have respect and they didn’t value me as a professional.

The applicant said that prospective clinical psychologists need the experience as assistants “desperately” in order to receive a place on a doctorate programme, which are highly competitive in Ireland.

Another recent graduate who was successful on another panel for an Assistant Psychologist role similarly said that the HSE roles are the most sought-after for experience because they “tick all the boxes” that doctorate programmes look for.

“The HSE Assistant Psychologist jobs are seen as the most coveted positions because the long-term goal for me and many others in my position is to go on to do a doctorate so that they can practise. Getting a role in the HSE as an Assistant Psychologist goes a long way in getting to that point,” they said.

Some other Assistant Psychologist roles in the private sector may not fulfil criteria to the same extent as the HSE roles in areas like gaining clinical practice experience, the amount of supervision given, and the amount of hours worked. 

“I did the interview and listed quite well. A couple of weeks after that, I was told I’d placed in a position and was given a list of centres where they had positions and asked to list my most to least preferred,” the second applicant said.

“At that point, they were very responsive and quite good – we should give credit where credit is due.

This applicant is from another country and was advised they would need to have a blood test to test for TB before they could take up the position. 

“I understand that, but the nurse at Occupational Health for the HSE then didn’t believe my vaccination card from [their home country] and I had to get another MMR vaccine, which I wasn’t too pleased about but we’d do anything to get this job. I recently received a letter saying some immunity didn’t get picked up and I would have to get a chickenpox vaccine, which I know I’ve had. That letter coming after the recruitment freeze, I’m not sure what’s happening with that,” they outlined. 

“I did the garda vetting and the blood tests and then I was just waiting. Because they had been quite communicative before, I reached out to check what was happening. I got the email saying garda vetting had been done and I’d been cleared by Occupational Health, so by then I should have started,” they said.

I heard nothing back and I was waiting and waiting. Then I heard from someone else that there was a recruitment freeze, so I got in touch again. Eventually I got a response to say there was a recruitment freeze. 

‘There is a mental health crisis’

Both of the applicants who spoke to The Journal explained that they continued to interview for other positions external to the HSE because of the freeze and have now been offered other roles.

They say they feel very fortunate to have received other offers but are disappointed that they could not take up a position at the HSE — and say they wish the HSE had notified all applicants sooner that the freeze had been implemented.

“We were sort of in limbo between August and November, and that’s a long time to be unemployed with the cost of living crisis and the housing crisis,” one of the applicants said. 

“I’ve found another Assistant Psychologist job, but it was interview after interview after interview. I’m lucky to have gotten another role now but for a lot of people it’s going to delay them getting into a doctorate.”

The Journal contacted the HSE about the experiences faced by prospective Assistant Psychologists due to the freeze.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the HSE said that “recruitment of staff has allowed us to serve our patients, service users and their families better” and that high workforce numbers are “good news for the public and our staff throughout the country and reflects that an expanding health service is a very good thing”.

“However, it has always been the case that there is no guarantee that being placed on a panel will lead to a job offer. The number of roles allocated from a panel depend on the number of vacancies that are available in that time period.” 

The applicants said the impact of the freeze on the psychology sector is regretful given the existing strain on mental health services in Ireland.

“There is a mental health crisis and I think it’s really poor of the HSE that they’re freezing these roles. People need help and we’re here and willing to help but they don’t want to employ us. It doesn’t make sense,” one applicant said.

“Psychology is hard enough. The journey is long enough. We don’t need any more delays. The government really needs to look at the mental health system and reconsider what they’re doing, because it’s not working.

“We need psychologists, we need assistant psychologists, and we’re here but there’s no funding and very few employment opportunities. We’re here, we’re willing, and we’re able but they’re not giving us the chance and I think for me that’s the most frustrating thing.”

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