COVID-19 cases and test numbers are on the rise, as Victoria comes out of lockdown and continues to reach for vaccination targets. But as the situation develops, hospitalisation cases are anticipated to rise and place greater demand on the state’s healthcare sector.
Today, the healthcare sector is already being pushed to its limit as nurses work long hours conducting contact tracing, COVID-19 tests and administering vaccines. With high demands, hospital managers are also struggling to find nurses and fill in shifts because of burnout that is being felt across the industry. While nurses are being given access to health and wellbeing services to cope with the stress and exhaustion, not all have the time or ability to use them after working extended hours on the job.
The healthcare system continues to experience shortages as the demand for people to get vaccinated and tested grows. With increasing shortages, hospitals have been reliant on current registered nurses, retired nurses and emerging nursing students to help relieve the current workload.
Sarah Reeves works as a Registered Undergraduate Student of Nursing (RUSON) at the Austin Hospital helping in the swabbing clinic. Before the pandemic, Reeves worked as a disability support worker and because of the current burnout of nurses, she was hired as a RUSON at the Austin Hospital working in the COVID-19 swabbing clinic helping with the workload.
“RUSON positions were created so that students were able to work in vaccination clinics, COVID swabbing clinics and the wards, to ease the burden so that qualified nurses could return to the understaffed wards,” she tells upstart.
In her new role, Reeves’ workload has increased, quadrupling her working hours, which has negatively impacted her personal life.
“Prior to the pandemic, I worked around 10 hours a week as a disability support worker. Last week, I worked 40 hours due to the need for RUSONS in the swabbing clinic. This affects my ability to complete university assessments and is difficult to arrange with clinical placements,” she says.
The long hours are due to the extra work nurses are expected to accomplish during their shifts, making for gruelling back-to-back schedules, according to Reeves.
“You get home at 9:30 pm after an exhausting eight-hour shift, lips are cracked from lack of water and nose bright red and sore from the pressure of N95 masks. You fall asleep and wake up to a 5:30am alarm just to do it all again,” she says.
A study conducted by Edith Cowan University surveyed almost 600 frontline healthcare workers last year during the first wave of COVID-19 in Australia and found that 35 percent of participants reported having at least one symptom of burnout. Another 30 percent answered to having depression after working long hours under extreme pressure.
This situation is still happening today and Reeves, along with the rest of healthcare workers, are asking people to do their part in getting vaccinated to ease the demands on the health sector.
Another stress for workers like Reeves is the possibility of bringing the virus back to her family working in a high-risk and high-pressure environment.
“We’re all vaccinated. I’m in PPE the entire shift, but I still can’t help but worry that I could be the cause of a family member getting sick,” she says.
Nurses aren’t the only medical workers feeling the brunt of these shortages as other departments in the healthcare sector are also feeling the strain. In June, The Age reported that Victorian maternity services are also being depleted. One of the leading causes is the increase of COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, forcing midwives to work 18-hour shifts. The lockdown baby boom is also linked to the increased demand, further straining maternity services.
Registered nurse and midwife at Mercy Hospital for Women, Elise Kyrou says that the lack of staff and the change to visiting hours have also taken a toll on midwives.
“I think most of us now are exhausted because we don’t have enough staff at the moment. Lots of girls like myself, do [a] lot of double shifts,” she tells upstart.
“If you do an afternoon shift into night shift your working for 18 hours, it’s just a lot of pressure. Also, because you [are] giving people medication you’ve got to be switched on the whole time [and] you can’t just float off,” she says.
As COVID-19 cases continued to rise in September, nurses called on the state government to introduce a disaster payment scheme for the workforce following months of dangerous and unrelenting working conditions.
But Sarah Reeves and Elise Kyrou have yet to find the need to use these services. Reeves is aware of her accessibility to the wellbeing services but prefers to cope with the exhaustion by talking to her fellow nurses because they all have a mutual understanding of the things going through.
“The best and only way I am able to cope is by talking to my colleagues. They understand, they empathise. I can’t talk to my family about it because they don’t truly understand how emotionally burnt out I am at times,” she says.
Kyrou says midwives at Mercy Hospital for Women have similar access to services but also hasn’t used them because of her scheduled shifts during the week.
“I think it depends which area you [work] in and [when] your shifts are. I know that [for] me five or more shifts in a row, I’m just ruined because you get a mixture of afternoon shifts that go til 10pm and early shifts that start at 7am,” she says.
“You’ve got your nurse in charge and then you can talk to the managers, they’re always around, especially with COVID. They’ve sent out an email saying if you need to chat [or] need a break.”
Despite the access to health and wellbeing services, the impact nurses and midwives have made to support each other amidst the shortages illustrate why they’re the backbone of the pandemic.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can find help at:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Nurse and Midwife Support: 1800 667 877
Article: Jordan Janssen is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @JJordy1210