April Abbott writes: I wrote this to highlight the difficulties I face as a mother of two young children returning to work. I’m shocked at the inflexibility of our system and the overt attempts to push mothers out of the workplace. More importantly, I wrote it to show that this is an issue that affects all Australians, because if we don’t act now we risk losing a valuable section of our nursing population. I hope my colleagues will read it and understand that it’s not about mums wanting the best shifts or choosing to be difficult. It is simply that many of us are faced with the choice of fighting for roster stability or leaving. Can we sit by and watch?
Let’s face it; the future of healthcare in Australia looks bleak. As a society we’re getting older and sicker and we keep expecting more of a system that just can’t keep up with the demand. When you add an ageing nursing population and the very real prospect of a healthcare workforce shortage, the picture looks pretty grim. So why is it that, in the midst of a national debate about health care funding, a Registered Nurse (RN) with over seven years experience in Intensive Care and an extra three in other areas of nursing can’t get a permanent job in a hospital? The answer – because I’m a mother.
April and her family.
I’ve always known that being a nurse is about sacrifice. And like all mothers, I understand that working takes away from time with my family, and that’s fine. It’s not just about the money, I love my job. I love knowing that I make a difference, that I can spot when a patient is about to deteriorate and take action to stop it. But I can’t be available 24 hours a day any more and that means I can’t work a rotating 24/7 roster. That means I can’t get a job.
Let me share a conversation I recently had with a Nurse Unit Manager of an ICU unit who was advertising for RN positions. I highlighted my fairly extensive experience and explained I was looking for a job closer to home following a period of maternity leave. Her immediate response was “I don’t allow any of my staff to work regular shifts so you will have to work a fully rotating roster”. I explained that was impossible due to child care requirements and her response was “The rule applies to everyone”. Effectively – Do Not Apply.
So here I was, the perfect candidate for the position but for one small detail, I needed to work the same shifts each week. This isn’t a one-off for me, I was bullied in my previous position for being too “needy” with my shifts, and I’m not alone. One colleague tells of how she is forever swapping afternoon shifts because they don’t work for her family and has seriously considered leaving the profession. Another talks about the lack of childcare for shift workers, saying:
“It’s a struggle [arranging childcare] and it takes a great deal of planning and patience before I even get to my job, which takes even more out of me.”
Lastly, one woman I spoke to says that although her employer knows she is available between Wednesday and Saturday, her one shift per week is regularly rostered on a Sunday to Monday.
How can we possibly justify this?
I need to put it out there: these issues aren’t exclusive to nurses. No matter what the job, every mother faces challenges trying to find a work-life balance, but shift workers are particularly at risk of facing this difficulty. There are, however, a few differences for nurses. Firstly, we are notoriously selfless and rarely complain in any significant way about our working conditions. Secondly, we are more likely to suffer from health problems than people of other professionals at the same age, probably because we are so willing to sacrifice our own needs for the job, not to mention our higher than average exposure to illness. Thirdly, and most importantly, we simply cannot afford to lose our experienced nurses!
I made the decision to switch to practice nursing and I love working at a local medical centre. I had to take a 25 percent pay cut, I’m working casually, some weeks all my pay goes to childcare and it’s a shame that my years of intensive care experience aren’t being utilised, but that’s the price I pay to ensure my kids are looked after while I’m at work. And it would seem that I’m a minority, others in my situation are leaving the profession altogether or putting up with the inflexibility, but at what cost?
We need to tackle this issue now. Nursing was always known as a family-friendly profession that supports mothers. Now it has become inflexible and even hostile, and it must stop. If we continue to push away our experienced nurses we will be left with a serious skill shortage in 10-20 years. We will be left without the most valuable nurses, the Clinical Nurse Specialist, the Team Leader, the Senior Nurse on a night shift who you know you can count on in an emergency. And we will be left with a junior workforce who haven’t been given the opportunity to learn from the more experienced and specialised nurses. Even if we don’t see a continuation of the trend for nurses to leave the profession, the stresses of the job and trying to balance it with family life are just too high.
We need to value our nurses. We need better legislation and, more importantly, better support from hospital management. We need to change the culture of expecting nurses to put up with it or leave. What we can’t do is close our eyes and hope the problem goes away.
So how can make things better and retain nurses in the future? Well, you might not like it, but the answer is providing nurses who are mothers of young children with ‘Special Treatment’. Yes, you read that right, Special Treatment for working mothers. Do we want it? Not really. Do we feel entitled to it? Huh! You think I became a nurse for all the entitlements? The truth is, nurses who are mothers of young children need special treatment and Australia needs us to work.
We can make it happen by providing mums with regular shifts for the short time during their career that they have dependent children. It’s not necessarily pick and choose, it’s a collaboration that works for everyone, not just the manager and roster team. We can provide child care in hospitals to suit shift workers and ease the financial burden of childcare on shift-workers.
Most importantly, we can stop labelling working mums as “selfish”, “difficult” and “entitled” or lump the responsibility of establishing a work-life balance solely onto the mother because “she chose to have children”. These statements show that, as a society, we place little value on the care of young children or their role as our future workforce.
Some of the best nurses I know are mothers. They are patient, empathetic and highly skilled at multi-tasking. They love their work, they are passionate about the profession and they are in the unique position of being involved on both sides of the nursing station, with frequently sick children. Please let’s not toss these nurses aside because it’s too hard to make the roster work! With only a few small changes we can ensure that our future nursing leaders remain in the workforce and remain at the forefront of a world-class health care system.
What do you think? Do you share April’s experience? Are you a manager who insists on everyone working rotating shifts? Please leave your comments below.