This article was first published in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, October 2018
The past 12 months have taken a toll on all of us, in various ways. A malaise has hung over NZNO and its members; it has been a bit like the winter bug that keeps recurring, only the symptoms are not snuffles, coughing or headaches. At first, the symptoms were mild – anxiety tinged with optimism and hope tinged with despair. But as time went on, they worsened and manifested, for some, as anger, bitterness, cynicism and hostility. For others, there was sadness, disbelief and disquiet.
The maelstrom that has been the district health board (DHB) multi-employer collective agreement (MECA) negotiations, which began in 2017, has left many of us feeling bruised, and wondering what has become of our great profession. As I reflect on this question, other even more difficult ones creep into my head – how do we move forward from this? How do we rebuild trust between and among members, and between members and NZNO?
Staff had had enough
There is no doubt nurses and health care assistants working in our hospitals had had enough – enough of working short-staffed, shift after shift after shift; enough of working extra and/or double shifts; enough of not having their qualifications, expertise and commitment recognised in their pay packets; and enough of putting themselves and their patients at risk, because of all of these things.
There is no doubt trust and confidence in care capacity demand management (CCDM) to deliver a solution had evaporated and, to be fair, is it any wonder? After 10 years, progress on implementation was still glacial. Work analyses and full-time equivalent (FTE) calculations, while providing evidence of the need for more staff, went unheeded. Yes, we know why, but is that really an excuse?
As the negotiations continued, the tension increased, both inside and outside NZNO. The advocates and the negotiating team continued working hard to achieve a result that would go some way to satisfying members, but to no avail, so members voted to strike. Right there was the signal that nurses, midwives and health-care assistants were not going to be easily appeased.
As the first strike day (5 July) loomed, we threw ourselves into planning for the delivery of life preserving services (LPS). For most of us, this was a first, the learning curve was steep. The pace was demanding – days, nights, weekends of work. Anxiety about getting it right was high, but then came a brief reprieve. NZNO was harangued about calling off the first strike day, but that wasn’t done lightly or on a whim. Bargaining had resumed and, under the law, a strike cannot take place while the parties are in bargaining.
To those who still hold a grudge against NZNO about that, perhaps acquainting themselves with the rules that govern bargaining before unleashing their anger would have been more professional. Remember how much we love to say we are an evidence-based profession?
Of course, the stone-throwing started long before the strike. Some members (and non-members) took to social media to rain down abuse on NZNO and on individual staff. For many of us in the profession, that behaviour was the wellspring of deep sadness. What has the profession come to, we asked ourselves and each other as, day after day, the insults, name-calling, ill-informed commentary and blatant lies spewed forth from various Facebook pages.
Caution by NZNO and DHBs
In this fraught context, work on LPS continued in preparation for the second strike on July 12. Again, there are rules that determine how this work is done. If, on strike day, there were more staff than usual, that was about NZNO and the DHBs being cautious – nobody wanted the day to be compromised by tragedy or disaster.
The strike went ahead, a resounding success, some would say – street marches, flag-waving, public support, media coverage – and finally a result.
So what now? Perhaps it is time for a look in the collective mirror. As a profession that espouses critical thinking, compassion, empathy and communication as key to who we are, it begs the question: Are those the values that looked back at us from Facebook?
The preferable course is that we move forward together. We have achieved some excellent outcomes. Together, we can reboot CCDM to ensure workplaces are staffed safely and we can work toward 100 per cent employment in a nurse-entry-to-practice/specialist-practice programme for all new graduate nurses. We can also begin to implement NZNO’s Strategy for Nursing and, in doing so, effect real change for the profession.
We would do well to heed the words of American essayist, cartoonist and humourist, James Thurber: “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.”