Researchers have sounded the alarm bell over the health of Australia’s ageing nursing workforce.

Lecturer at Southern Cross University Kay Ross says Australia’s nurses are getting older and face deteriorating health, which will place an enormous strain on productivity and workforce capacity in the coming decade.

Kay Ross, Lecturer, School of Health and Human Sciences, Southern Cross University
Kay Ross, lecturer, School of Health and Human Sciences, Southern Cross University

Ms Ross, who has conducted a large survey on nurses’ wellbeing, said chronic illness was a major concern for older nurses and called for employers and government to urgently invest in the health of frontline nurses.

Her survey of over 6,000 nurses from all states and territories showed 30 per cent currently had a chronic disease and 50 per cent said they took time off work in the previous 12 months because of their illness.

The most common chronic conditions reported were muscoskeletal problems, obesity and type II diabetes.

Overall, nurses rated their health as poor or average, and only a small number believed their overall health was good or very good, Ms Ross told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Work-life balance

Workplace stress and the nature of shiftwork was also identified as a major contributor to an unhealthy lifestyle and to reduced wellbeing.

“Nurses talked about having to work through their meal break because there wasn’t anyone to relieve them, and not having access to healthy food especially after hours,” said Ms Ross. “If you are on night duty you are often faced with going to a vending machine full of chocolate or soft drinks.”

She said working long and irregular hours also made opportunities for exercise and healthy eating and lifestyle habits difficult, and strategies needed to be in place to better support nurses to care for themselves.

Ms Ross pointed to the staff wellness program recently announcement by Woolworths as a good example of an employer investing smartly in its workforce. As part of the program, management staff were given access to online motivational tools and subsidised gym membership to reduce rates of obesity and the risk of cardiovascular disease among its workforce.

In response to the survey’s findings, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation called on the Federal Government to develop a nursing workforce strategy to urgent address these health concerns and combat a nursing skills shortage.

The survey,  jointly conducted with Dr Jennie Barr also from SCU’s School of Health and Human Sciences, was funded by the former Department of Health and Ageing under the Chronic Disease Prevention and Service Improvement Fund.

A final report is due for publication later in the year.

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