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A safety net for Australia's health system and workforce

The increase in COVID-19 case numbers across the nation continues to put pressure on Australia’s health workforce and is shining a powerful light on the invaluable role of agency health workers in ensuring our health system can continue to function through times of great uncertainty.

“Agency nurses and health workers have been crucial throughout the entirety of this pandemic, but never more so than right now,” said Charles Cameron, RCSA CEO.

“Greater exposure to the virus is causing more people to contract COVID-19 and nurses and health workers are no exception. Stand-down due to exposure or contraction of COVID has compounded the challenges facing the health work force, which has been spread thin supporting testing, screening, and vaccination requirements, as well as increased demands on the health system from the virus.”

Charles said that access to agency health workers over the past 2 years had been the key to ensuring the health system could function through the peaks and troughs of the pandemic.

“Australia’s healthcare system has relied heavily on agency nurses and health workers to cover shifts in aged care facilities and in hospitals while permanent staff are resting, isolating, or deployed. Agency workers have also been the backbone of the workforce supporting vaccination, testing, and screening operations.”

Charles said that pressure on the permanent health workforce, combined with a huge demand for workers across the sector, had seen a trend away from permanent employment in favour of agency work in recent months.

“Our member agencies are reporting an influx of nurses and health workers into the agency workforce in recent months, most of whom are leaving permanent employment in the health system to take up agency work,” he said.

“There are a number of reasons people are making the move, but the two most prominent ones are to support mental health and avoid burnout, as well as to take advantage of the flexibility provided by the abundance of work available.”

“For many health workers, the hours associated with their permanent job at the moment are unsustainable, and people tell us that they find it harder to say no to extra hours to their direct employer.”

"By contrast, they don’t have the same qualms, concerns or issues when it comes to declining shifts offered to them by staffing agencies. Health workers are telling us that agency work has presented an alternative that better allows them to manage their hours and avoid burnout.”

“In this sense, agency work has become a flexible way for nurses and health workers to better manage the demands of their work while staying in the system. The alternative is that many may otherwise have ceased working in the industry all together, putting further pressure on an already[1]stretched workforce,” said Charles.

“Agency work is the safety net of Australia’s health workforce and is playing an increasingly important role not just in keeping the system operating, but in keeping much needed workers in the system.”

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