Open letter to Tony Abbott: Shift work for nurses is not a lifestyle choice

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Dani is a thirty (something) Intensive Care Nurse based in Sydney. This piece originally appeared on her blog Once Upon a Violet.

I’m not really the political type. I don’t have a major preference for any one party over another and I don’t ever judge a party by just its leader – whoever he or she might be. I believe there are flaws with all of the major parties and I believe the governing party should be changed regularly every few years. So when it comes to election time, I usually weigh up what affects me most at that stage in my life. But years ago when John Howard first started talking about the removal of penalty rates for shift workers, that’s when I began to get a little worried…

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I have had a relatively long and exciting critical care nursing career which I began in my early 20s. I’m not over dramatising what nurses do – I know the public are well aware of the lengths we go to for our patients, this is why we are continuously awarded one of the ‘world’s most respected professions’ every year. So why would the government want to penalise the people who do so much good for our society?

Dani Headshot

Dani.

After a rather stressful nightshift recently, whilst my head was still buzzing (yet my brain was fried), I composed this letter to Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party.

 An open letter to Tony Abbott – Please don’t disrespect our nurses. Shift work is NOT a lifestyle choice.

Dear Mr Abbott,

I am writing to you after just finishing a gruelling 12-hour night shift. I am tired, my eyes are sore, my head aches and my body feels sweaty and dirty.

I am an Intensive Care Nurse and last night I spent many hours resuscitating someone’s baby. My amazing team and I just saved a life. And in some way, perhaps from providing that glimmer of hope during one of their darkest hours, we have saved the lives of the child’s parents now as well.

You and the Australian public need me. In fact you need my whole team. We are a group of highly trained and highly skilled individuals, who stayed awake all night, while the rest of the country slept in their nice warm beds. We left our husbands, wives and our own children to go and care for the lives of strangers. We do this week in and week out – and we do it damn well.

We do this all the time and at any time of the day and night.

You see, in the world of clinical nursing there are no boundaries to the hours of the day we work. We need to have a savvy team on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The sick do not stop being sick by 5pm on a Friday and they do not miraculously get better just because it’s the weekend. And as for the holidays – well let’s just remind you that even more accidents and injuries occur during these periods.

I work long, hard, unsociable hours – but our camaraderie is paramount to getting us through. And last night I saw camaraderie at its best.

But luckily (to sweeten what we do just a little bit), we get rewarded by our penalty rates. So when my body feels aged more than it should because of the lack of sleep I get from staying awake all night, at least I get a little remuneration for it in the end.

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And when my circadian rhythms are so messed up and my hormones become imbalanced and my immunity gets lowered from not getting the regular sleeping patterns that a normal worker would … and so on and so on… (I am sure you get my drift).

But the hardest part is when I have to miss spending time at the weekends or holidays with my own family. So when I do come to work at these times, at least I get a little extra pay to make up for it.

And yes sure, as you have stated in regards to shift workers before: “If you don’t want to work weekends, then don’t work weekends”… But my contract doesn’t allow for that. I have to do my fair share of days, nights, holidays and weekends – we must ensure that the correct mix of expertise is available at all times of the day and night for the safety of our patients. Shift work is not a lifestyle choice for us.

I suppose I could go and get a different job and only work Monday to Friday… But why would I waste these tremendous skills that I already have? I have been resuscitating people’s loved ones now for over 16 years. Intensive Care needs these skills and our patients need nurses that have gained these skills.

Intensive care needs us shift workers. We are a special breed. All nurses are.

What it comes down to is that we are the front line. As shift-working nurses, we are providing the direct care to our patients to make them well again. At all hours of the day and night, we hold in our hands the most innocent individuals of our population – children.

I consider us to be like a bunch of super heroes – super heroes disguised in a pair of navy blue scrubs.

I’m not saying you need to pay us the earth, just pay us what we are worth. And if you (and the public) need us to stay awake all night to heal these precious little bodies, then don’t take away our penalty rates. Give us this small reward for the amazing job we do.

You need to be attracting nurses to the profession, not driving us away. And that is exactly what will happen if you take our penalties from us.

Is it really worth it?

Mr Abbott, one day you might be a grandfather, and heaven forbid if your precious little darling ended up needing the help of this highly skilled team I am so honoured to be part of. Can you imagine if we all packed up our tools and went home for the day – just because it’s now past 5pm and considered “after hours”?

Sorry, health care doesn’t work like that. We have a duty to our patients and to their families.

I hope you never have to walk inside the doors of an ICU. It’s a scary place to be. Not many people have it in them to do what we do. To keep it together in times of adversity, to keep a level head, then to use our skills to save a young life.

It’s humbling. And it’s also very grounding. It really puts things into perspective as to what is important in life.

I hope you can keep all of these points in mind and show us the respect we deserve. Please do not take away our shift penalty rates.

Respectfully yours, 

All of the diligent and deserving shift workers of Australia

Previously on Nurse Uncut: Penalty rates – 13,000 nurses and midwives respond

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6 COMMENTS

  1. This letter is articulate, factual and beautifully put – what a shame Tony Abbott can’t be forced to reply.
    If Tuesday is no different to Saturday, will Parliament start sitting every day as well?
    Are government offices going to be open extended hours? I think not.
    Well said Dani.

  2. The Life Gold Pass, awarded to former politicians, costing more than $182 million – The Government should be cutting politician’s early exorbitant paid pension plans, tax breaks, expenses and benefits – including rent assistance, Australian holidays, world travel, chauffeured cars, office fit-outs, entertainment, celebrity life, telecommunications and annual wages – not targeting the hard working citizens’ penalty rates or our elderly citizens’ pensions who have worked hard and paid tax into their mid 60s!
    Nurses are considered the most honest and trusted of all professions; sadly we can’t say the same of our country’s politicians, their promises and practices.

  3. Its ok for a politician to say if you don’t want to work weekends then don’t. I am a single parent who works nights on weekends as well as weekdays. If I, like so many other nurses/midwives, didnt get the penalty rates for the night shift and the weekend, there would be noone working after hours and on weekends. who will look after the patients then – less qualified staff? (I’m sure no politician, or hospital managers will come in and work the shifts.)
    Do nurses/midwives and our Hospitals really need to do this, I’m sure there are other things they could be doing for the system.

  4. It’s OK, but it relies too heavily on the sensational and emotional and whines too much. Nursing is a lifestyle choice because it’s a voluntary career choice. You don’t have to do it. If you don’t like shiftwork, don’t like how it messes with your life, then leave. Nursing isn’t going to change, so you change and make lifestyle choices that make you happier. And I hate this business of “you need me” and “we are highly trained”. Everyone knows that nursing has been recruiting from the bottom of the barrel for decades: virtually every university in Australia requires rock bottom marks to get into the degree (it’s harder to get into an arts degree at most universities) and virtually every hospital I work for recognises that nurses don’t really do what they claim to and are shooting to employ a 50/50 or better ratios of RNs to ENs, because ENs are repeatedly showing themselves to be capable, whilst nurses, especially over the last two decades, have established a national rock solid reputation as being miserable whiners.

    • I was going to type out a long explanatory response to this and thought better of it. You’re a troll with nothing better to do than write inflammatory, ill informed opinions in the hopes you might upset a few people.

  5. I disagree with removing penalty rates and would love to see 9-5 workers (who are usually the ones loudly protesting penalty rates and claiming weekends aren’t any different to weekdays) work the shifts nurses do (or any other shift worker for that matter). Shiftwork takes a significant toll physically, mentally & socially and needs to be remunerated.

    Practically speaking, there won’t be many people who’ll bother being nurses if they remove penalty rates anyway, but then I suppose hospitals will hire overseas nurses which will mean a more transient occupation.

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