Nurses need their own medicine

A nationwide survey has found that workplace stress is having a devastating effect on the overall health and wellbeing of Australia’s nurses.

Many nurses identified stress as the biggest contributing factor to obesity, hypertension, respiratory diseases and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

The most reported chronic disease was musculoskeletal, which may be a reflection of the age of the nursing population, many who trained before the no-lift policy was introduced.

The results from an online survey by Kay Ross and Dr Jennieffer Barr of Southern Cross University’s School of Health and Human Science, will be used to develop strategies to address the prevention and management of chronic illnesses in nurses and midwives.

“Nurses told us that workplace stress is a huge issue,” Kay Ross said. They talked about things causing stress such as workloads, bed closures, job losses, bullying, shiftwork and being expected to do more with less. Many of them said if they had some way of dealing with their stress they’re sure their health would improve.”

A third of nurses who had a chronic illness needed to take time off in the previous 12 months. Ms Ross says that while the survey focused on nurses, the largest workforce in the health sector, it was also a snapshot of the wider health community.

“The whole health system has to realise that the most important commodity it has is the people that work for it. By looking after all staff, including nurses, we can have happier and healthier workplaces.

“We would probably find that any group of health professionals would have similar results, with many also not being as healthy as they would like. Most of us know what to do; however we need support to be able to do it.

“We’ve had a lot of health promotion messages, from Norm’s Life Be In It back in the seventies to recent campaigns including Measure Up and Swap it, Don’t Stop it. But we have to go the next steps, which include motivation, sustainability and support.”

Ms Ross says some hospitals in the United States have developed staff wellness programs, but she is not aware of anything similar in Australia.

Steps to better health could be as simple as providing “chill out” rooms where employees can take a break, relax and maybe have a cup of tea or coffee before going back to work.

With 35% of registered nurses in Australia aged over 50, and an average age of 45, chronic illness is a major concern.

“Forty per cent of nurses are looking at retiring during the next 10 or 15 years and we don’t have the numbers of experienced nurses to replace them,” Kay said. “The reality at the moment is that nurses are expected to be working very hard, very quickly with very little support, because everyone is so flat chat.”

With a captive workforce 24/7, the issue of providing healthy food also needs to be addressed.

“There has to be an option for staff who are working in the middle of the night or on weekends to have something healthy available to eat rather than a soft drink or a chocolate from a vending machine,” Kay said. “Even if staff take food from home to work, there’s often nowhere to put it because the staff room is where you do handover, write your notes and catch up on paperwork.

“If you bring your lunch to work there often isn’t a quiet place where you can eat it. In some hospitals the only comfortable place to sit is in the main foyer where patients wait to be picked up to go home.”

Kay says the next step is to develop strategies to deal with the health issues that the survey revealed.

“We’re not saying there has to be a lot of money spent, but we have to put some thought into this, we need to talk to nurses and get more input on what’s going to work for them.

“Online wellness coaching is one strategy that we have talked about but we need to find out what nurses think will work best for them. We now have the evidence that nurses are not as healthy as they would like; the next step is to do something about it!

Survey results will be published in a report “Primary Health Care for Nurses: Developing strategies for the prevention of chronic illness in nurses.” The (former) Department of Health and Ageing under the Chronic Disease Prevention and Service Improvement Fund provided funding for the survey.