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I used to be able to work for three days in a row and it was fine, but I can’t do that anymore. I’m bloody tired and I get really sore feet and legs. When I was a graduate people would ask my opinion but now if I speak people say, whatever. I thought you would have retired by now.

These are just some of the unique workplace challenges older nurses and midwives face in the workplace, a new Australian study has revealed.

Working as an older nurse or midwife in the health system meant increased fatigue, physical changes such as loss of hearing or vision, and lack of respect and feeling undervalued.

Led by Julie Denton, an RN PhD Candidate at the University of South Australia’s Health and Clinical Science Division, the study interviewed 50 nurses and midwives who worked across a variety of clinical settings and identified as an older worker. The average age of participants was 57, with ages ranging from 46 to 74.

The study identified three main themes – Ageing Body; Youth Focus; and Wise Worker.

The theme Ageing Body related to the increased fatigue and age-related physical changes faced by older nurses and midwives working in the often physically demanding healthcare environment.

Fatigue was the major challenge for participants, with the busy nature of the role of nurses and midwives, including working long shifts with heavy workloads, contributing to increased levels of tiredness and exhaustion. Some reported that it takes them longer to recover between shifts and that they are exhausted at the end of their workday.

‘You’ve got to be thinking constantly, so mentally and physically it’s very draining’, one participant said.

Physical changes, such as the onset of conditions like age-related arthritis and diabetes, or loss of vision or hearing acuity, also affected the ability of many older nurses and midwives to perform to their best, the study found.

One participant spoke of her diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis, saying it reduced her capacity to work: ‘Bending and doing general ward work is really difficult’, she said.

Similarly, 20 of the 50 older nurses and midwives suggested they suffered from some form of pain, most commonly in their back or feet. In total, 42 of the 50 participants acknowledged they suffered increased fatigue, especially when they were on their feet all day or experienced interrupted sleep patterns.

The second theme identified within the study, Youth Focus, uncovered that for many participants, being an older worker in healthcare meant being viewed as a poor-quality worker, and being afforded limited access to education and promotional opportunities.

Several participants felt their contribution to the workplace was not valued as much as their younger colleagues. One person suggested her workplace did not value older workers because they were nearing retirement, and therefore, did not have longevity.

‘When I was a fresh graduate people would ask my opinion, but now if I speak, people say, ‘oh whatever’’, a participant said.

Older nurses and midwives who took part in the study also reported being treated differently in the workplace, including being shunned by younger colleagues because of their age.

Challenges included being ostracised by younger colleagues and left out of social activities; being constantly asked to cut back on hours; and being labelled slower and criticised by younger colleagues.

Several participants also noted that when working with younger managers, there was little consideration given to them as older workers and that they felt disadvantaged because of their age.

Wise worker was the final theme that emerged from the study.

Contrary to the negative experiences reported by many participants, a small number of older nurses and midwives felt valued and respected for their knowledge, experience and skills, and said they were treated well at work. Several others also spoke about inclusive workplaces with no difference in the treatment between generations.

‘I am looked on as being the wise old woman, the person younger ones come to’, one participant said.

In these workplaces, for some participants, being an older nurse or midwife meant that they were given the opportunity to mentor junior colleagues.

The study was partly driven by data showing Australia’s older nurses and midwives mark the largest rising group of the healthcare workforce. Many are increasingly delaying retirement, continuing to work for numerous reasons such as financial, the camaraderie of working with others, or simply because they are not ready to step away.

Other considerations included the gradual increase of the age pension age, meaning people are increasingly working past the traditional retirement age.

The study’s findings highlight that there is a need to support older nurses and midwives to manage age-related fatigue and physical changes.

One strategy to recognise the important contribution that older workers can make, it suggests, is a ‘wise-worker’ model, where workplaces have practices that enable and facilitate the contribution of older workers.

“The ‘wise-worker’ model of practice is one that should be promoted by all healthcare workplaces to ensure the knowledge and skills of the profession are passed from one generation to the next.”

Mrs Denton said the findings of the study underline the need for more research, particularly about which strategies are most effective to enable older workers in healthcare to meaningfully contribute to the workplace.

“Some spoke of having supportive working lives however, many do not, therefore considering the wide age range of participants identifying as older workers, 46 to 74 years there are ‘young older’ people in the workforce who will be remaining in paid work for many years to come and to help them contribute providing high quality healthcare, they must be supported.”