Growing nursing shortage sees more nurses call in sick

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

On the eve of the next round of negotiations between nurses and the DHBs, 1 NEWS can reveal there is a shortage of over 1000 nurses across Auckland, Northland, Wellington, Canterbury, Otago and Southland. 

Across the three Auckland district health boards and Northland, there is a shortage of 600 nurses - almost half (279) in Auckland City. Capital and Coast DHB reports it's short 241 nurses, Canterbury 131, and Southern DHB, which covers Otago and Southland, is short 121 nurses. 

These figures - based on the most recent publicly available DHB reports - are likely just the tip of the iceberg, with a much larger number predicted nationwide. 

The chronic staffing shortages are being exacerbated by our border closures, making offshore recruitment difficult, while the Covid-19 vaccination rollout is taking some experienced staff. 

Southern DHB chief executive Chris Fleming says the number of vacancies is higher than previous years.

"With the current global pandemic and border closures, the pool of nursing staff is limited... We are therefore having to rethink our recruitment strategy; carefully balancing the requirement to meet the safe staffing needs at the DHB with the nursing staff needs in the community." 

Auckland DHB chief nursing officer Margaret Dotchin says the shortage is concerning, but work is underway to try and recruit more staff during these challenging times. 

Until then, nurses on the frontline are feeling the pressure, in a system they say is overloaded and understaffed. DHBs nationwide also reported longer stays in emergency departments; longer waiting times for treatment, with nursing staff doing more overtime; and sick leave creeping up.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) delegate Benjamin Basevi is a clinical nurse manager for Auckland District Health Board, and part of his role is managing safe staffing levels. 

"It's pretty bad at the moment," he said.

"We do not have enough nurses on the floor to do the cares the patient requires. Nurses are going home in tears, coming in at 5 o'clock in the morning, sleeping in their cars to get a park then going to work." 

And he says the nurses' goodwill is running out. 

"They are fatigued, they are overworked, there's a lot of give in the system with the nurses' goodwill and that's getting worn out." 

One nurse, who did not want to be publicly identified, says the situation has got so bad, she goes into work each day fearing for the worst. 

"It gets really hard, because there is a higher chance of us making a mistake... We miss a patient deteriorating and then finding out later they are already a lot sicker than they would have been if we just had the time to check on them earlier."  

It is not what she expected when she first started work as a nurse five years ago. 

"I knew it would be hard," she said.

"I was up for the challenge of looking after unwell people and figuring out what was going on with them and treating it, but I wasn't prepared for how badly staffed and under-resourced we are at the moment." 

The next round of negotiations are due to take place tomorrow and Friday. If no agreement is reached, nurses will walk off the job for eight hours on Thursday, August 19.