Laughter the best medicine

Aged care nurses still manage a good laugh despite workplace pressure.

While the NSWNA Aged Care Nurses Forum revealed some dynamic and interesting professional developments in aged care nursing, a less inspiring take on the experiences of this nursing sector is found in a study by Valerie Adams, Research Associate at the University of South Australia.

In her study called Laughing It Off: Uncovering the Workplace Experience of Aged care Nurses, Valerie Adams, portrays aged care nurses as a jovial lot, who can still have a good laugh despite the day-to-day pressures they face in their work.

But there’s a complex and worrying story behind these cheery dispositions. Her study asserts that traditional and unhelpful images of the perfect nurse are at heart of the laughing matter.

The nurses interviewed for the study seemed to be encumbered by outmoded and diminutive images of nurses – which affected how they ‘delivered hands-on care, how they interpreted their workplace environment and how they participated in interviews for the research’.

And when they fell short of the unrealistic and unfair expectations they imposed upon themselves, laughter was the dominant response – masking their discomfort and embarrassment at not keeping up or being able uphold the impossible, according to the report.

The study sets out to investigate how nursing culture impacts on the way nurses perceive their work and is based on interviews with 17 ENs and RNs working in aged care.

Adams notes the participants laughed when describing problems in their nursing role or their workplace. They downplayed incidents they felt were stressful or unfair, such as meal breaks being cut short, or working on when the shift ended to get through their workloads. Heavy workloads and constantly having to work unpaid overtime to get through their work was put down to personal inadequacy – despite the interviewed nurses’ extensive experience in aged care.

However, the report does not examine the factors contributing to the stresses and workplace pressure faced by nurses in the aged care sector including low staffing levels and an inappropriate skills mix in aged care.

The small sample size used in the study also throws doubt on the validity of the project’s findings.

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda says it’s a credit to aged nurses that they continue in their roles under such pressure and it’s a mark of their commitment to their residents.

‘To some extent there is still a culture in some workplaces where nurses are afraid or uncomfortable about speaking out about unfair pay and conditions, or where nurses do not get the professional recognition they deserve,’ said Judith.

‘Aged care nurses play a vital and valuable role in the aged care sector, as was evidenced by the material prepared by the NSWNA for the ‘Fair Share for Aged Care’ campaign last year. Our evidence examined the roles, workloads and qualifications of our members working in the aged care sector.

‘The NSWNA case was accepted by the Industrial Relations Commission and won a 25% pay rise for aged care nurses,’ she said.

ACOSS study confirms Nurses are underpaid and overworked

An ACOSS study has reveals some trends in the aged care sector that come as no surprise to members. Based on the 2001 Census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the ACOSS report cites evidence confirming staff in the sector are being ‘deprofessionalised and suffer underemployment and relatively poor pay rates’ – driving them from the aged care sector to the health and education sectors.

According to the report called Who Cares? A Demographic Profile of Care Workers Employed in the Australian Community Services Industry, almost half (49.5%) of staff working in nursing homes (including nurses and personal care assistants) are aged over 45 years.

Not surprisingly, fewer younger people are entering the aged care sector com-pared with other community care sectors.
There is also evidence the sector is being ‘deprofessionalised’, with the proportion of professional care workers declining from 29% in 1996 to 26.2% in 2001.

Despite this deprofessionalism, the report reveals an increase in the proportion of aged care staff with formal qualifications. In 1996 15.3% of aged care staff held formal qualifications, yet in 2001 the proportion was 20.3%, suggesting a trend of underemployment in the sector. Increasing numbers of aged care staff are formally overqualified for their jobs, indicating a lack of employment opportunities in the higher skilled job categories, says the report.

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the majority (90%) of staff working in an aged care setting are women. The report reveals they are more likely to have dependent children than women in other sectors, twice as likely to be sole parents and more likely to work part-time than general population.