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Has the pandemic put an end to nursing as we know it?

June 18, 2020

Some sources cite June 2019 as the start of what unfolded to be one of Australia’s most prolonged bushfire disasters, during which 34 people lost their lives during a time when an area roughly the same size as Syria was burned.

Just twelve months on, ‘unprecedented’ has become the standard precursor to the descriptions of other disasters we have continued to, and since endured – from drought, floods and cyclones to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

What has also been unprecedented is the strain this has put not just on healthcare, but on our nurses. We’re already seeing changes – some subtle, some not so – in the way nurses want to work, demand for services, increased upskilling and a shift in perspective on self rather than serve.

Changing work habits

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that flexibility and agility will always be in demand and that job security is a thing of the past. With services such as breast screening, immunisation clinics, and elective surgery on hold in recent months, work stopped altogether for some, while others were deployed into roles they hadn’t previously considered – from COVID testing clinics to contact tracing units.

For others, the strain of being unemployed, under-employed or overworked have led to some nurses reviewing exactly what the future of work will be. And for some, the excitement and variety of changing work options has opened up a whole new world of opportunities where taking on short-term contracts or casual assignments offers a better alternative for the future of their work.

uPaged nurses have been a case in point during the pandemic, demonstrating both flexibility and open-mindedness to roles they hadn’t considered previously. For those in hospitals or facilities where staff were stood down, had reduced hours or were laid off altogether,  they have been able to take advantage of the new jobs available. From manning Medibank’s national COVID telehealth lines one week, to working in COVID crisis response teams the next, followed up by a stint in a GP Respiratory clinic as an example, some had not previously worked outside of theatre until now, and are now enjoying the increased scope of practice.

Demand for services

Certainly, the impact on services requiring nurses, in particular for nurses specialising in mental health, is on the increase. A joint statement released

last month by the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne confirmed what we’ve known for a while – that the culmination of the events of the past year compounded by the impact of COVID-19 will likely lead to increased rates of suicide, mental illness and subsequent demand for mental health services. To that end, the Government has granted a funding boost of $54M for mental health to strengthen Australians’ health through research to prevent illness and deliver better health care as we recover and restore our nation in the aftermath of the pandemic.

That will mean an increased need for nurses with skills and knowledge of mental health nursing, particularly as we transition to our post-COVID world.

Skilling up to meet demand

For nurses seeking a career change or for those wishing to upskill, this increased need may well present a great opportunity.

The Australian College of Mental Health Nurses advises that with an undergraduate degree in nursing, you can register to practice as a nurse and work in most mental health settings. However, to become a specialist mental health nurse, you need to undertake postgraduate study in mental health nursing at Graduate Diploma or Masters Level.

There is a multitude of training opportunities available here.

Nursing the nurses

Nurses, by their very nature, are often the last to apply the classic aeroplane analogy that you must put your own mask on first before you can help others. And this is where putting a perspective on self, rather than serve, is really important.

There are some brilliant resources out there for nurses on self-care, including this one here.

With over 30% of nurses demonstrating depressive symptoms (compared to only 4% of the general Australian population) and with anxiety also common in the nurses, it can be very hard for afflicted nurses to seek treatment for their own mental health issues.

Many fear the stigma of mental illness and worry that they will be seen as less capable of looking after patients if they are struggling with mental illness themselves.

With the compounding impact of the pressure that everyone has been under this past year, it is absolutely critical that, as nurses, we get our mask on first and look after ourselves as a priority.

New world order

There is no doubt that events of the last 12 months have left an indelible mark. The collective international rise of gratitude for and recognition of essential workers and the outpouring of support during our International Year of the Nurse has pushed the profession to the forefront.

What the long-term impact on nurses and nursing will be is anyone’s guess right now, but talking about the issues we’ve endured, seeking a way to resolve what will work best for us in our work in future, and embracing the change is a great starting point.

Let’s just hope the next 12 months bring a calmer, kinder and more forgiving new world order.

This article first appeared The Lamp – the digital magazine of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association.

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