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Fearful for future of NZ nursing

Opinion Piece

by Michell Krawczyk

Michell Krawczyk

I am a nurse of 14 years, and I have a very simple message for the people of New Zealand. Be afraid for your health system. Be very afraid.

Nurses (and within that term I include healthcare assistants and other hospital health workers) are burnt out and exhausted, and many are now looking to leave the profession or to go and work overseas where pay and conditions are much better.

The stress of Covid-19 over the last year has been enormous on nurses. The sheer amount of work that has been asked of us, coupled with the fear of contracting the virus and bringing it home to our loved ones, has become almost unbearable.

But the thing that will really break the back of nursing in New Zealand is the first offer from the district health boards (DHBs) in our latest round of multi-employer collective agreement negotiations. These are held every two-three years and involve around 30,000 members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.

We’ve just been offered, on average, 1.38 percent — which is actually just under the rate of inflation — and some of us are being offered even less than that. In all my years of nursing, this is the worst offer I have ever seen and we’re in the middle of a worldwide health crisis! I am disappointed and disgusted.

Every one of my colleagues thinks the same, but it’s not just because we feel undervalued and disrespected by the offer. We’re actually fearful. This offer does nothing to make nursing more attractive, so our unsafe staffing problems, which were already at crisis point before Covid-19, are about to get terribly worse.

That’s a genuine concern for us all. We’re barely coping now, so what will happen if a serious outbreak occurs?

And where will we get the extra nurses to replace the ones we will lose to the nationwide vaccination rollout?

I became a nurse because I wanted to be there for others. It’s my passion and I love seeing people come in sick and leave well. But most days I work in a full, busy and understaffed ward. So, I’m used to that feeling in the pit in my stomach that says this is going to be yet another bad day where everyone gets the bare minimum.

Like many other nurses, I often take on extra shifts because I don’t want to leave my colleagues working in even worse conditions. Like many other nurses I feel drained and overworked, but worst of all is how this affects the level of care I can give my patients. I don’t get time to talk or connect with them, which could really help with their recovery. Often basic cares are missed and I go home most nights troubled by what I may have forgotten to do.

It’s not fair that so much has been asked of nurses, especially over the last year, and that we are now being offered so little. Many of us have had enough and a lot of my colleagues are planning a move to Australia. And fewer new graduate nurses will be there to replace them, because they’ll struggle to support a student loan on entry-level nursing wages.

We’ve stepped up when you needed us over the last year, New Zealand. Please support us now in our struggle for decent wages and safer staffing so we can continue to be there for you.

■ Michell Krawczyk is a clinical nurse specialist working in the Tairawhiti region.

  1. Dave says:

    Well, hopefully under the new health system our top-heavy hospital will have less management and advisers, and more nurses and doctors. Sadly a bit of me remains apprehensive about any real improvements.

    1. Brenda, Nelson says:

      Yes Dave, I agree, getting rid of the DHBs’ paper pushers will give more money for the medical staff and being able to employ more of them. The dysfunctional system as it is is so toxic and unsafe for staff and patients. Losing so many good nurses and others in the health system is scary.

  2. Kate, Auckland says:

    Well said Michell. I have been trying to recruit for my workplace for the past two months. I hardly get decent applicants. I go home every day worrying about the sustainability of the health practice I work for.
    Nurses, including HCAs, need better offers to attract people in this irreplaceable profession.

  3. Dawn Irvin, Hamilton says:

    Totally agree with this Michell. You have put your concerns across very well. Something has to be done – NOW. Best of luck

  4. Michelle Edwards, Nelson says:

    Well said. Yes, this is a national plight. We can now all watch as nurses leave. I was so disgusted with the DHB settlement offer for senior nurses that I left the DHB and NZNO. This is after years of being an NZNO delegate, which actually says quite a lot! Voting with my feet in a saddening and difficult culture. I don’t appreciate being undervalued but if you don’t mind, you know where to apply!
    I love nursing, however I currently would not advise others to enter the profession. There are safer career choices out there and areas where you will be appreciated.
    I have now moved to the private sector in a leadership role, on an individual contract. I am appreciated, valued and paid fairly. I am also much happier. I am fortunate to be able to do that with having extensive experience. I fear for other DHB colleagues and wonder what they will do? Morale is suffering and so are nurses. My poor profession!

  5. Orana Harris, RN, MA, Tauranga says:

    Never fear Michell, nursing is in good hands. I went nursing not for the money but for the opportunities, such as helping patients and their whanau at the most vulnerable moments in their lives, not to mention the fun and long-lasting friendships made. It’s an honour to care for people in all walks if life. Yes it is stressful, and yes the pay is mediocre, and yes we are at risk of getting ill, however it is still a wonderful profession. Have faith and keep up the great work you are doing, don’t lose heart. Fight the good fight for one and all.
    Nga mihi kia koutou katoa nga neehi o Aotearoa.
    Kia kaha, Kia Maia, Kia Manawanui

    1. Vickie McMahon, Auckland says:

      I agree with Orana Harris’ comment. I was a nurse but left the profession not for better pay but just for a change from shift work because I had a young family. Many nurses today really don’t have the compassion and empathy that is required to care for patients. I recently was a patient in an Auckland hosp and was disgusted with the amount of foreign nurses working there who could hardly speak English let alone Teo Reo Maori. I was treated as if I was a leopard, but I noticed they had plenty of time to sit around and laugh and chat while buzzers were going off.

  6. Julie Lichtwark, Forbes NSW Australia says:

    Well said. I support NZ nurses. Been in Australia for 14 years working rural remote. Great opportunities over here but we do work hard as well. Facilities with minimal staff. That’s the health system. Look forward to coming home but have no intention of working in the public health sector.

  7. Clyde, Auckland says:

    Very well said Michell. I totally agree with you. It’s that time to consider moving across the ditch or fight for NZ nurses’ fair pay. Will share this to our nursing groups in FB.

  8. Sally Clarke, Christchurch says:

    Well said. You are correct re: new grads struggling to pay back loans. Thrown into 100% loads – I am a teacher and a new grad starts at 80%. After 5 years of study gaining a masters, our daughter will struggle to be paid the same as a teacher. She is super fit but some days barely gets time to eat and if she cannot get her notes done, then spends 45 mins unpaid at the end of a shift to complete her work. This is all in the first 3 months of work, so you are correct in worrying about sustainability. What a shame if nurses have to give up their passion because of untenable workload!!

  9. Catherine, Auckland says:

    The sad part of this is that many of us have not encouraged our children to go into this profession. I certainly steered my daughter into a different career pathway. Unfortunately there is no career in nursing as there are only so many ‘top’ jobs. I made more as a sales rep and was treated with more respect. The latest offer is insulting and demonstrates the lack of value the NZNO place on our profession. This union has failed too often over the years. Time for a new one.

    1. Jan, Auckland says:

      I too steered my daughter away from the profession. At 26 she earns about $30k more than me as a nurse of 40 years. I’m now watching my niece training to be a nurse as a mature student post-Covid. The institutions don’t make it easy for them – in fact, they set them up to fail with ridiculous rules and inflexibility. All very sad.

  10. Freda Edie says:

    It would be good if nurses from overseas could come and work here. I have seen many young nurses leave to work in less-stressful environments for more pay.

  11. Linda Marks, Auckland says:

    Does this three-year wage freeze Jacinda just announced include nurses? Whatever happened to the pay parity talks that were happening when I retired? I thought that was almost a done deal and that’s why nurses accepted the shitty deal last time.
    Best of luck. I’m devastated that this Govt, which has ridden to glory on the backs of essential workers, has now stabbed them in the back.

  12. Petra Hickey, Queenstown says:

    Well written, and felt nationwide. Uncomfortable and hard to read but she speaks my truth.

  13. Leanne J, Christchurch says:

    It isn’t the NZNO that undervalues us, it’s the DHBs, and probably to an even greater extent . . . the Govt!!! I cannot believe that right in the middle of our negotiations, they announce a pay freeze . . . really??? That right there shows what they think of us, and I suspect it was done when it was in order to prevent us from being able to fight for what we deserve. Well, hopefully that isn’t going to happen!!!
    The NZNO is doing a great job this time around. We have a new board, they are listening to what we want, and are communicating better – probably more than they ever have!!! So I definitely disagree about them disrespecting us.
    Nurses need to focus on the issue at hand, and not get drawn off into discussions such as this as it means we lose focus on what really matters right now – and that is standing united, for what we believe in. Nurses need to start showing up, going to meetings, learn about what is happening so they are well informed enough to be able to make a vote that is educated. Last time around we started out with one heck of a bang, all fired up and ready to fight, and then fizzled out right when it mattered. So NZ nurses, HCA Midwives etc we need to stand in solidarity, show them that if they draw it out long enough, people will not roll over this time, or if they offer a payment of $1000 for a full-time nurse, we will turn it down – we didn’t get $1000 anyway, not by the time tax and student loan (if you still have one) comes out.
    Don’t be sucked in this time around, stay focused, stay resolute, and stand in solidarity with your colleagues.

  14. Raechel Weir, North Shore says:

    Nurses in medical centres are under strain too and are struggling to cope with an increasing workload. As a medical receptionist we too feel that we can barely keep up with the demands placed on us as well in general practice. A drug rep who we interact with said he has never in his 25 years in his line of work seen so many staff in medical centres feeling overwhelmed and close to burn out.

  15. Nicole, Hawke's Bay says:

    I started nursing and attained the highest degree level in ICU PICU Neonatal. I was treated well by Drs but there is a lot of bullying in nursing, by nurses – that’s why I left, along with a back injury after too many lifts. Getting in overseas nurses is a disaster. I was mentoring an overseas nurse; she dropped an intravenous push on the floor, picked it up and I had to stop her from using the syringe and needle and continue . . . I had to instruct on hand-washing technique too, and watching the patient not the monitor; she called a blue 100 as a lead came off – the patient was in no distress. I would not let my daughter train as a nurse; instead she is in Engineering and Architecture, living in Denmark and having a wonderful lifestyle.

  16. Karen Bolton, Wellington says:

    The army will be brought in – already doing so in Canada. There are fewer wars. They are already in some DHBs.

  17. Suresh Prakash Sharma, Lower Hutt says:

    It’s a shame that the union has let us down and I do agree the nurses should be well paid since the wages gap between the support worker and nurse are not too different, and most support workers don’t even perform their duties according to the wages they earn. For many of them it’s all about money not commitment, since the new guidelines put in place by the government.