6 December 2021 posted by Recovery Partners

Just as Australia was slowly exhaling a collective sigh of relief at the prospect of borders opening and COVID-19 restrictions lifting in time for Christmas. it seems like the new Omicron variant may be about to scupper everyone’s plans for the festive season.

Pre-Omicron, modelling from the Burnet Institute (home to more than 450 infectious diseases researchers), had already predicted elevated case rates from now through to Christmas, while others suggested that Christmas will be a super-spreading occasion as borders reopen. If this becomes our reality, the responsibility of care will shift back to the healthcare professionals who nursed us through last Christmas, and the timing couldn’t be worse for frontline workers, many of whom are still recovering from the effects of burnout. 

“Secret Third Wave”

Last Christmas, the number of people diagnosed with mental illness increased dramatically. In what became known as the “secret third wave” of the epidemic – a growing number of traumatised frontline healthcare workers who sought help for psychological stress, fatigue, anxiety, exhaustion and burnout.

Nurses across the country, in both public and private health organisations, state that they’re feeling overworked right now, with no respite from an ever-increasing demand.

Nurses, in particular, have been working beyond their limits during the pandemic, with fatigue raising the risk of increase in slips, trips and falls. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) has a policy in place to help avoid work-related fatigue amongst nurses, midwives and other healthcare employees.

As stated in the policy, the organisation expects that employers of nurses, midwives and assistants in nursing meet their obligations under WHS (Work Health and Safety) legislation. They must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health from fatigue, by providing no less than 14 risk control measures which eliminate or minimise workplace risks from fatigue.

It’s not, however, just about the risk of increase in slips, trips and falls. Seismic shifts are occurring in the healthcare workforce as a result of COVID.

The nursing workforce is under incredible stress. They are overworked, underemployed. overwhelmed and exhausted, angry and distressed, with many on the verge of leaving the profession. 

What the insights tell us

New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has thrown light on the emotional toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Australian doctors, nurses and paramedics. ECU surveyed almost 600 frontline healthcare staff during Australia’s first wave of COVID-19 in 2020. The national study offers a valuable insight as previous research exploring healthcare workers’ willingness to work has often only been based on hypothetical scenarios.

The ECU study showed a workforce that was less inclined to work than before, with issues ranging from the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), family members’ concerns, and the risk of getting the virus.

12 months on, early results from a recently launched survey by healthcare workforce marketplace, uPaged, has shown that:

  • 91% of nurses have been affected by fatigue and burnout
  • 49 have been affected by mental illnesses
  • 92% fear for their safety

The uPaged survey of healthcare workers raises far greater concerns beyond healthcare workers being pushed to their physical limits, with respondents raising concerns about moral and ethical struggles.

Healthcare workers are less willing to put up with rigid and demanding working conditions; they are concerned about COVID safety protocols, the reality of working with people who may bring COVID into the workplace, and the possibility of having to treat people who have remained unvaccinated by choice. 

Rethinking More Than Christmas

The pandemic has changed mindsets – many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time. 

Rethinking Christmas?

Healthcare workers typically receive alternate Christmases off work, however last year showed that many worked through Christmas, following long stretches of lockdown and without any holiday leave taken.

As Christmas 2021 looms, and on the cusp of Omicron’s creep into the community, healthcare workers should remain even more vigilant to the risks they are under. 

Risk mitigation

Recovery Partners provides psychological services for employee wellbeing.

You might also be interested in our free Mental Health and Wellbeing eBook. 

Nurse & Midwife Support is a free, confidential, 24/7 service for all nurses and midwives, nursing and midwifery students, employers, educators and concerned family and friends. Nurse & Midwife Support provides advice and referral, promotes better health for nurses, midwives and students, and safer care for the public. 1800 667 877.

If you are a Nursing professional and would like to participate in uPaged’s survey of nurses about nursing, employment and work options during and after COVID, you can do so here until Friday 28 January 2022.

Help shape the future of work for nurses. Have your say and be heard. All responses are anonymous. And in no more than 18 questions that will take just 3 minutes, your answers will have a big impact. Every voice counts.  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/uPaged

If you are a healthcare organisation and would like to receive a copy of the uPaged report into Nursing Workforce when its published in Q1 2022, register here. 

If you or someone you know is at risk of burnout, you might find our free Mental Health and Wellbeing eBook useful. 

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Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/