Who cares for the nurses?

A survey undertaken by Southern Cross University has concluded that our nation’s health system could be up against another crisis in the near future. The survey of almost 5500 nurses across the country found that it was a rapidly ageing workforce, with about 40 per cent of nurses aged 50 and over.

Not only are Australia’s nurses an ageing demographic, many are suffering from musculoskeletal conditions, obesity and mental health problems. Of Australia’s 320,000 nurses, the survey found that 30 per cent had a chronic illness and, as a result, half of those required time off work in the last year. The most common problems were osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and back problems, followed by obesity and mental health issues.

Many nurses are also at high risk of developing other health problems. More than 10 per cent drink more than two standard alcoholic beverages and day, nine per cent smoke and 35 per cent are at high risk of developing diabetes in the next five years.

Study author Kay Ross warned that Australia’s ageing population may not have any caretakers by the time they need care. “In 10 to 15 years, we won’t have nurses to look after us … So many nurses are already in their 40s and 50s. We don’t have the numbers coming up through the ranks to take their places.”

Karin Tilden, who has been a nurse for 41 years, said that shift work makes it difficult for nurses to keep themselves healthy. “Working shift work means nurses are there 24/7. In the middle of the night when they go for something to eat or drink, you go to the vending machine and it’s only chocolate … They get home at midnight; they’re not going to sit down and cook a healthy meal.”

Ms Ross has said that nurses need better access to healthy food and gyms in their workplaces. “We need to look after the nurses we’ve got so that they aren’t as stressed, they actually do have a meal break during their shifts, they aren’t expected to just stay because there’s not enough staff.”

Last year Australia’s population grew by just 1.8 per cent, and yet over the last ten years the average number of nurses in Australia has increased by three per cent. While these numbers may look promising, about 40 per cent of nurses are aged 50 and over, while just 15 per cent are aged under 30, meaning there will not be enough younger nurses to replace those retiring over the next 15 years.

Read more about this issue at the Sydney Morning Herald website

Read the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) nursing numbers online. 

Opinion: A simple solution

Being a nurse is a stressful job, and I think most people who enter the field understand that. What many don’t realise is how physically and emotionally taxing it is, not just because of the physical work but also due to the night shifts and constantly changing sleep schedules. Kay Ross, the author of this recent study, has called for access to healthy food and gyms in the workplace. And to me, this doesn’t seem like much to ask.

The numbers show that the average age of our nurses is top heavy – we don’t have enough young nurses coming through to replace those in their 50s and 60s. We also know that these nurses are, overall, unhealthier than the general population. It seems like a no-brainer, therefore, that keeping them in the workforce for as long as possible is important, and that the only way to do so is to help improve their health.

 Yes, feeding 320,000 nurses at least one meal each day is going to be a cost. But hospitals already produce so much healthy food each day, providing it for the nursing staff isn’t going to be logistically difficult.

Giving nurses access to gyms in the workplace is also going to be a cost, but these don’t have to be state-of-the-art exercise facilities. Most of us would consider an exercise bike, a treadmill and a few free-weights to be more than sufficient equipment for a full workout.

All of this costs money upfront, which is usually enough to get an idea thrown out by the Government before it has ever seen the light of day. But without these preventative measures we are looking at a future where nurses retire early due to health problems, enter hospitals and care themselves and the number of nurses drops alarmingly over a short space of time. Australia will then be left trying to push new students through to quickly replace the numbers, meaning they will spend more money opening up extra places at universities, or we will have to rely on getting nurses in through immigration. And while this scramble for new nurses is occurring, Australians are left without nursing care, or with longer wait times to be seen (and wait times aren’t short now).

This is a case where we have identified a problem early. There are also a number of clear solutions to the problem which, if they are implemented now, will mean we don’t have to face this healthcare crisis. If we help to improve the health of nurses now we will give ourselves time to gradually increase the number of nurses being trained each year. If the Government decides to stick its head in the sand and hope the problem falls to the opposition to deal with in the future, we are going to have a real problem on our hands, one for which everyday Australians will suffer.

What do you think? Should nurses be able to keep themselves healthy in their own time? Or should we be caring for our caretakers?