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'Grave concerns': SA nurses working double shifts, unpaid overtime

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Nearly three in four South Australian nurses report working unpaid overtime and a quarter work double shifts, a new survey shows, amid claims many are on “auto-pilot” while treating patients.

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The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, which conducted the survey, says fatigue and burnout is at an all-time high and patient safety is at risk.

More than 3000 nurses took part in the six-week survey from May to June, with 56 per cent signalling their intention to leave the system within the next five years.

“We did the survey because we were so concerned about what we were hearing anecdotally and this has confirmed our worst fears,” ANMF state secretary Elizabeth Dabars said.

“The situation is awful. It’s not acceptable for nurses and midwives but also the community they service – everyone is losing from this.

“We have grave concerns for workforce capacity in the future which is intrinsically linked to burnout and fatigue as evidenced in the survey results.”

The Women’s and Children’s Health Network had the highest rate of nurses and midwives working double shifts, at 34 per cent, which the union said was an “obvious danger” to young patients given the potential for fatigue.

Dabars said it was leading to staff operating on “auto-pilot” and experiencing “depersonalisation”, with the problem worse among those aged under 30 working double shifts.

“It’s really affecting a person’s ability to empathise,” she said.

“When you’re talking about caring work, when you’re having that disassociation or depersonalisation it’s a real negative because it really impinges on your ability to care, but it’s kind of like a coping method.”

The survey found many of those nurses were planning to leave their role within the next 12 months.

“Overall, this pattern of data suggests we are facing a generational loss of younger nurses and midwives because of the pressure placed on them by the system to work in such demanding and fatiguing environments,’’ Dabars said.

The union said it was estimated there would be a shortage of up to 15,000 nurses in SA by 2030.

Dabars said about 1000 nursing students graduated in SA every year but there were only places for half in graduate training programs in the public system, forcing many to change career paths or go interstate.

The union wants more training positions made available to graduates, a pause on voluntary redundancy separation packages, and a workforce renewal and planning strategy.

“There is no active work being undertaken to build the future nursing and midwifery workforce at the levels and with the skills that our community will need,” Dabars said.

“We need to skill people up now rather than wait for the exodus to occur.”

She said much of the fatigue being experienced was from workforce shortages, not COVID.

“We have clear shortages in areas such as mental health, critical care, emergency nursing, peri-operative care and midwifery,” Dabars said.

“Country areas have the additional disadvantage of trying to recruit in these areas of shortage with few additional incentives to offer.”

The survey results have been sent to chief executives of SA Health and the local health networks, urging action.

“The chronic issue of fatigue and burnout amongst nurses and midwives has never been in such urgent need of redress as it is right now,’’ Dabars said.

“If the State Government yet again fails to act on these significant survey results, then we are most certainly facing a major health crisis in the very near future.

“Inaction by government and SA Health means that they are complicit in creating ongoing crises in the workforce.’’

Health Minister Stephen Wade said the government was taking workforce needs “very seriously”.

He said the Central Adelaide Local Health Network was recruiting 150 extra nurses “as we speak”.

Wade said extra demand on the healthcare system was a “phenomenon that is being seen right across the nation”.

“Whether it’s a low COVID state or an outbreak state there has been significant demands on the hospital network and that’s why at both the health ministers’ meeting and national cabinet this week the focus is on hospital demand right across the country,” he said.

“It’s certainly been a sterling effort by the nurses in SA in terms of stepping up to COVID.

“Not only have they continued to conduct world-class health services, they have also stepped up to man the medi-hotel network, they’ve stepped up to man the COVID testing network and of course the vaccination program.

“That’s why we’re very keen to recruit additional staff.”

Premier Steven Marshall said health professionals were in “short supply” and the government was actively recruiting.

“There is a huge workload,” he said.

“We are doing everything we can to bring people into this sector, bring people back into this sector and look at other workforce ways of providing some additional capacity for a sector which is quite frankly stretched right across the world.”

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