School leavers have more career options available to them now than ever before. Female leavers who traditionally account for most of the student nurse cohort are actively being encouraged to consider careers in a wider range of fields.
With predictions of a nursing shortfall of 85,000 in Australia by 2025 and 123,000 by 2030, how do we tempt the social media generation en masse into a profession that is frequently portrayed as being badly remunerated and associated with a poor work-life balance?
While the nurses who weathered the COVID storm may find the gallows humour of ‘nurse influencers’ on social media amusing, these influencers are potentially having an enormous adverse effect on the very generation that we should actively be using social media to recruit.
Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook have between eight and 20 million active users each per month in Australia alone. Some nurse influencers have followers numbering in the multiple millions with each new post attracting a million plus views.
Popular topics for posts include reasons not to date nurses, how poorly nurses are paid, how terrible nurses look after their shifts, how hard it is for nurses to have a social life, and how exhausting it is being a nurse.
In stark contrast, NSW Health only has 136,000 followers on Instagram and a mere 82,000 on TikTok. Their Facebook page has the largest following of their social media accounts with 992,000 followers. The number of likes for NSW Health Facebook posts ranges from 50 to 1,000 per post, with the majority attracting less than 200.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the healthcare industry desperately needs to find a way to turn their social media image around.
Imagine seeing an advertisement for a position that says, ‘Seeking university-qualified professional for a highly stressful position where the lives and health of clients are constantly at risk. Must be willing to work shift work, including night shifts, with no regular pattern. High risk of regular abuse by clients and their families. Overtime and double shifts are frequently required, and new graduates will be paid less than those in the engineering, banking, legal, software, mining, and technology industries.’ It sounds ridiculous, unbelievable even, yet this is exactly the image of nursing that influencers are portraying to Australian teenagers.
There is no denying that nursing is a physically demanding career. Far from being glamorous, there is a very real possibility of suffering occupational violence at the hands of patients as well as regularly being covered in bodily fluids, working through breaks, and being at a higher risk of workplace-related injury and illness. Previously, the reality of this was largely unknown to potential future nurses until they commenced studying and started their practical work placements, but the rise of social media has laid bare all the truths and realities of ‘hash tag’ daily nurse life.
Nurses who come to job interviews seeking regular, family-friendly hours in hospitals are sometimes surprised to discover that the position requires fully rotating shift work. Potential employees with childcare needs or regular weekly commitments simply don’t want to work in an organisation where the roster is only done a month in advance and changes from week to week.
Learning these truths via social media as high school students means that a nursing career is often discounted by school leavers before they complete their first university application.
It is no secret that workforce modelling predicts a large deficit in Australia’s future nursing workforce. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of a decade that has included a pandemic, nurses have been leaving the industry in droves with the percentage of registered Australian nurses and midwives working in clinical roles trending down since 2019. The nursing shortage is not just a national problem either with an estimated nine million more nurses needed worldwide by 2030.
Recently Australians have wholeheartedly embraced workplace flexibility such as working from home and family-friendly hours. New graduate nurses, who are still primarily young women, have begun to take this into account when deciding on a career path and if given the choice of a family-friendly career where you can choose your hours, pick your children up from school, and where an error doesn’t potentially endanger someone’s life, nursing is going to come off second best for the confident women of Generation Alpha. Every single time.
So, what can we do to address these issues? Those in the industry know the awful truth. There is no magic bullet or quick, easy fix. The nursing profession needs to drastically modify its approach to recruitment, retention, and workplace flexibility on multiple levels to stand any chance of thriving in the future. Change of this magnitude will take time, and time is a luxury that the profession may not have.
Investigation into the viability of more family-friendly flexible working arrangements, shared roles, and childcare facilities on-site would be worth pursuing.
Higher wages across the board and implementation of wage consistency across the country may prevent the states and territories from competing for the same staff. Zero tuition fees for nurses who agree to work in specific specialities or rural locations should be considered. An apprentice wage for nursing students in their final year of study with increased hours spent on practical placements to ease the workload in tertiary hospitals.
One way we demonstrate value in society is with money. When the average wage and work-life balance for nurses is unable to compete with other degree-qualified professionals and tradespeople then it is impossible to make nursing an attractive option for young people. What does it say about us as a society when we place a higher value on electricians and supermarket workers than our frontline nurses? The healthcare industry has always relied heavily on the altruistic nature of its workforce which may prove to be its downfall as the women who make up most of the nursing profession are taught to place a higher value on themselves.