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Nursing crisis in Australia can no longer be ignored

Harassment and intimidation of nurses has become so regular that in some workplaces it is considered “just part of the job”.

This needs to change. Today.

Nurses work at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site.

Nurses work at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site.Credit:Getty Images

The pressure on the nursing profession is mounting on a day-to-day level, when nurses are required to isolate from their family and friends after being exposed to COVID-19 at work.

The regular absences of clinical staff in client-facing health environments means teams are short-staffed, or managers, clinical nurse consultants and nurse educators are pulled off their work and asked to be clinically facing. This leaves these nursing experts to work extensive hours each day, as there is no backfill for their roles.

Nurses are turning away from the profession as a result.

In March 2021, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) conducted global research in nurse shortages one year on from the World Health Organisation declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. Nearly one in five of the National Nursing Associations surveyed reported an increase in the number of nurses leaving the profession.

Aged care nurses are leaving their profession.

Aged care nurses are leaving their profession.Credit:iStock

In Australia, the 2020 Aged Care Workforce Census reported that 29 per cent of the direct-care workforce had left their employment over the 12 months from November 2019 to November 2020 and there were almost 10,000 vacant roles in aged care alone. That was before the current extended lockdowns in both Victoria and NSW.

The ICN reports that the world entered the pandemic with a shortfall of up to six million nurses and an additional four million expected to retire by 2030, which puts the global nursing workforce under an intolerable strain. ICN says large numbers of experienced nurses are leaving the profession or considering calling time after the pandemic, which should be a wake-up call for governments to invest in nursing jobs, education and leadership before it is too late.

While the issues are challenging, there are strategies that can be put into place to ease the pressure, to support nurses, and nursing care in Australia.

Firstly, we need to immediately support the graduating class of 2021. Right now, thousands of third-year nursing students are at risk of being ineligible to graduate this year as they are struggling to obtain clinical placement hours required of their degrees due to disruptions to the healthcare system. It is estimated almost 20,000 nurses across Australia are due to graduate.

Nursing directors are dealing with exhausted staff.

Nursing directors are dealing with exhausted staff.Credit:Jason South

This workforce will make a tremendous contribution to all healthcare sectors. Governments and employers should be working to secure employment for all graduating nurses to provide a pipeline for workforce planning for 2022 and beyond.

We need additional funding for refresher courses for retired nurses, so they can supplement the workforce across Australia. This needs to be coupled with job certainty and tangible benefits to them for coming back into the workforce.

Support and relief must be given to senior workforce executives who are dealing with exhausted staff . The transformation of health systems to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 have largely landed on their shoulders, and they need practical support, people, funds and the go-ahead to overcome policies and procedures not suited to the current challenges.

Funding models are outdated and exclude mental health nurses, nurse practitioners and registered nurses from accessing Medicare numbers in order to be paid for the work they do. This is having the greatest impact in rural and remote Australia, where community healthcare systems are often staffed by nurses who cover enormous areas.

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We recommend a national summit to be sponsored by the federal government in collaboration with the Australian College of Nursing so a national action plan for a sustainable and supported nursing workforce can be established, prioritised and actioned in light of the pending crisis.

And finally, and most urgently, we ask all Australians to please consider the way fear, frustration and stress is expressed in clinical, aged care and community settings, for this is having a major and lasting impact on the emotional and mental health of Australian nurses.

We thank and acknowledge those of you who are patient, express kindness and gratitude, it means so much. We appreciate the toll COVID-19 is taking on people, but harassment, violence and intimidation of nurses in our society and workplaces will never be OK.

Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward is CEO of Australian College of Nursing.

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