‘I Am A Shell Of A Human’: We Spoke To NSW Nurses Who Went On Strike Over Hospital Conditions

Nurses and midwives across NSW held their first statewide strike in a decade on Tuesday. They walked out of the hospitals they’ve been desperately maintaining for almost two years to take a stand against burning out, being under paid, and feeling as though they can’t properly care for their patients.

PEDESTRIAN.TV spoke to some of the nurses about why they went on strike and what changes they think need to happen.

Kyle, a Sydney nurse in their early twenties, said that the only people they’ve been able to rely on during COVID-19 is other nurses.

“Management has completely abandoned us, having only new graduates staff our COVID wards at times,” they said.

One of the recurring themes in all of the nurses’ stories was feeling extreme burn out.

“Having spent six weeks working in ICU and four months on the ward, I’m beyond burned out,” Kyle said.

“Chronic understaffing and being deployed to COVID units has really taken a toll on me.”

Nurses across NSW are also primarily concerned with what being burned out and overworked means for their patients.

“I constantly come home and think about all the things I couldn’t do for my patients, be it making them a cup of tea or changing their dressings, simply because I was too busy and flat out during my shift,” said Kyle.

ICU nurse Emma made similar points. She went on strike to protest the treatment of her colleagues and her patients.

“Your grandparents, parents, kids and friends that are left at their most vulnerable point in their life and are suffering. Now NSW Health have realised how hard they can push us the standards have continued to drop,” she said.

“I also went for my colleagues and myself. Unfortunately we have learned that if you don’t look after yourself in this job no one will and that’s devastating for me.”

Emma said that making the decision to strike wasn’t easy.

“Leaving a hospital understaffed and stretched to try and get the government to listen. We did not take this decision lightly, however it isn’t any different to everyday for us,” she explained.

The strike, she said, was a “continuation of our promise to our patients to advocate for them when they are at their most vulnerable.”

“At the moment every single person who walks into a NSW hospital is vulnerable. Not enough staff, not enough manpower and not enough rest to provide this care.”

Amber, another intensive care nurse, described the last two years as “eat, sleep, and breathe COVID”.

“The last two years have been death after death,” she said.

“Overtime post after overtime post. Dangerously understaffed shift after dangerously understaffed shift.

“I am a shell of a human. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in therapy trying to work through the crippling anxiety I’ve developed. We don’t get mental health leave like the police. We cope.”

According to Amber, her management has tried to do their best with an “unmanageable situation”. She told PEDESTRIAN.TV of shortages of medication and equipments, shortages of staff and ward support and bed shortages too.

Amber said she chose to strike because she wants to see pay rises and hazard pay for nurses and midwives. Mostly importantly, though, she wants safer nurse to patient ratios. Strikers on Tuesday called for a ratio of four nurses to every patient.

She explained the impact of not having those necessary care ratios on her day to day shifts.

“I would like my lunch breaks back. I would like to walk away to get important meds for my patients knowing we have the staff to watch them,” she said.

“As a team leader I would like to stop feeling like I’m letting my team down because I can’t be in 10 places at once. I would like to go a day without an overtime post. I would like so stop telling the oncoming nurses that ‘staffing is terrible but it’s a really good team on tonight’ because that really good team are fading.

“I’ve lost so many colleagues and we will lose more if something doesn’t change.

“It’s going to take a patient dying from poor staffing for people to see, and I’m not going to be the nurse responsible.”

What is clear from these nurses is that state government claims about the healthcare system coping are not echoed by the workers in that system.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told 2GB radio on Tuesday that he was “disappointed” the strike went ahead after the Industrial Relations Commission ruled against it.

“We’re trying to find a way forward to make sure there’s some further recognition of the amazing work nurses and midwives do,” he said.

“But the union is asking for [different ratios] … it would cost a billion dollars, when we already spend 30 per cent of the state’s budget on health.

“It would mean we would have nurses sitting in empty wards when there are no patients because it would come down to the ratio.”

As put by Kyle, “the government is not listening to us”.

“The government has been relying on our compassion and sense of duty to our community to keep hospital running. They exploit our empathy for our patients to keep us understaffed,” they said.

“Having one nurse to six acutely unwell patients during the day, and one nurse to ten during the night is not safe. At the end of the day, it’s a part of our job as nurses to advocate for our patients and to keep them safe.

“I don’t believe I can keep my patients safe if I’m burnt out and stretched thin.”

Emma echoed Kyle’s sentiments.

“We are burnt out because our patients are not getting the care they deserve leaving us feeling guilty,” she said.

“This is not about more money, it’s about the decency not to cut our pay when we work through a pandemic and provide us with conditions at work to give our patients the best chance of life they can have and deserve.”

The pressures on nurses not just in NSW but across the country right now is insurmountable. When asked what she would say to the NSW government, Amber made the point that empowering and supporting nurses is an issue for everyone.

“I have looked after your mother with metastatic melanoma, I have looked after your brother after his severe stroke, I have cared for your son after he was hit by a car, and I have looked after you diligently when you had heart surgery,” she said.

“And you are taking me for granted. You are pushing me to a point where I can’t care for you anymore.

“Maybe you should start advocating for us now, before it’s too late.”

Names have been changed to protect anonymity.