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Whanganui health board ‘absolutely, constantly’ on the hunt for nurses

Maurice Chamberlain says on average, nursing staff stay with the Whanganui DHB for 12 years. Photo / Bevan Conley Whanganui’s nursing sector...

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Maurice Chamberlain says on average, nursing staff stay with the Whanganui DHB for 12 years. Photo / Bevan Conley

Whanganui’s nursing sector is in need of reinforcements, whether that be local or from further afield.

Head of nursing at the Whanganui District Health Board, Maurice Chamberlain, said the balance between people leaving and entering the workforce had been disrupted by Covid-19 border restrictions.

“We are absolutely, constantly trying to find where the staff are.

“Institutions like UCOL are really good, and last year we took them [graduates] all. They have all got jobs.

“They are local people, they’ve done their time, and they’ve got a degree. We would be stupid not to.”

On average, nurses stayed at the DHB for 12 years, Chamberlain said.

“If a nurse leaves the DHB to work for Te Oranganui or another health professional we would say ‘good on you’, because they are still doing their part for the community.

“We are more worried if they leave the profession completely.”

A former Whanganui DHB nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, said she recently left after several years to take up a position in the mental health sector in a different region.

“I loved my job and I loved working for the DHB but over the last two years, especially the last year, it just got too much.

“It’s not worth it if you’re burning yourself out.

“I would say, 100 per cent, we are understaffed.”

Increased workloads meant nurses weren’t able to provide adequate pre-sector training for students coming through, she said.

“Those students are seeing the stresses, and it’s not making it look like a very rewarding job.

“It’s really sad, but students are at the back of your mind. They aren’t even a factor when you’re starting your work day.

“If you do see a student onboard that’s almost a good thing, there is someone extra to help out. Really though, that’s the worst way to look at having a student.”

Chamberlain said current work conditions were more challenging than in the past.

“I can’t deny that when it’s busy, it’s busy.

“We do at times ask people if they would be kind enough to do overtime, but it’s a request not a ‘You have to’.”

The DHB had a “very structured plan” around students and new graduates, he said.

“Some staff, when they’re busy, do see students as an added thing they have to do.

“However, these students are our new workforce and we encourage them and we want them here. They are extranumerary.”

UCOL’s academic portfolio manager – entry to nursing programmes, Gordana Bogunovic, said bachelor of nursing enrolments for July were stable for the Whanganui campus, and comparable to previous years.

However, there was an issue of unmet demand for nursing graduates across all sectors of the health workforce nationally.

“This is, at times, the result of low availability of clinical placements for the students to complete the experiential learning requirements of their programme,” Bogunovic said.

“UCOL has a very strong and positive relationship with all of our clinical providers, and for us this hasn’t presented a concern.”

The former nurse said during the last few months in her role staff members were pulling double shifts “a couple of days in a row”.

“I was trying to encourage our nurse manager to grant them free meals at the cafeteria, just simple things like that.

“They didn’t get that unfortunately. Our manager was supportive though, and would go and buy us coffees.”

Last year nurses and midwives in Whanganui joined a national strike demanding better pay and conditions.

“We could incentivise getting student nurses through their studies by not having hefty student loans, or by paying them while they are doing their placements,” the former nurse said.

“They are really helpful and we are basically using them as extra staff members now.

“Obviously, raising nurses’ salaries would help as well.”

Maurice Chamberlain, the Whanganui DHB's head of nursing. Photo / Bevan Conley
Maurice Chamberlain, the Whanganui DHB’s head of nursing. Photo / Bevan Conley

Chamberlain said it was too early to tell if the country’s reopened borders had brought more nurses in from overseas, but there were “signs of it”.

“We still focus on the local need and the local people, but at the end of the day, we need to make sure we are giving the community the right care, with the right skillset.”

Bogunovic said a higher number of students experienced hardship due to “the ongoing effects that Covid-19 has on our communities”.

“We have very dedicated and skilful staff across both our faculty and our student success teams, and we have supported our learners well during this time.”

Exit surveys were undertaken when a staff member left the DHB, Chamberlain said.

“That’s to understand why they left. We don’t just say goodbye.

“Everyone who leaves is encouraged to do an exit interview, so we can understand how we improve our business.”

Chamberlain, who was a diesel mechanic before entering nursing, said there were many upsides to the role.

“I can’t think of another job where you get such satisfaction.

“You can have flexible hours and you can work around childcare, and there are opportunities for a nurse to work internationally.

“Inevitably, most come back, and we have a better nurse for it. They are experienced and they’ve got to live life at the same time.”

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation has been approached for comment.

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