Nurses are leaving the profession in droves, as overwork caused by staff shortages threatens to burn out a whole generation of young healthcare workers, senior hospital figures have warned.

Nurses across NSW are feeling the pressure from the current healthcare crisis brought on by the overload on hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, where safety restrictions have cut the availability of staff.

Healthcare workers say their hospitals are overrun with patients, with minimal staff to care for them. Nurses are required to work overtime to fill the gaps, burning out many.

The saddest thing for me to see is this new generation of young nurses who are enthusiastic and kind and caring, and we’re burning through them.

Sutherland Hospital branch president of the nurses association Colette Duff told Central News she had considered quitting her job many times over the past 12 months due to overwork.

“We’re literally running the entire time and we can never really catch up,” she said.

“Working in these conditions every single day, it begins to corrode at your soul; you essentially go home feeling worthless, like you haven’t done a good job.

“The saddest thing for me to see is this new generation of young nurses who are enthusiastic and kind and caring, and we’re burning through them.”

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash.

UTS nursing lecturer Dr Elizabeth Brogan backed the remarks, telling Central News universities are trying to help current nursing students through specific skill-based training and mentoring to make them more employable following graduation, however, the nursing shortfall was causing excessive burnout among new graduates.

“There’s a higher attrition rate amongst our ageing nursing population through retirement, and there’s higher attrition among the next generation of nurses through burnout,” Dr Brogan said.

“This goes back to the fact that in the ’80s and ’90s there was a decline in nursing as a popular profession because the universities made non-female dominated professions available. There has been a steady increase in enrolments over the years, but the numbers haven’t been enough to catch up.”

UTS is currently conducting research into specific initiatives to make sure new graduates are equipped for the high-pressured work environment.

“I think the pandemic has really highlighted that what we think nurses need is quite different to what nurses actually need,” said Dr Brogan.

“We have started some focus groups with the health departments to find out what they want from their students who are on placement, and we are taking that data back to our specialty coordinators to analyse so that we can tailor our curriculum to get these nurses workforce ready and hopefully ensure a long-term commitment to the profession to combat this staffing shortfall.”

The most recent study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found a 131.5 per cent increase in job vacancies under ‘health care and social assistance’ industries between February 2020 and May 2022.

Graph from ABS.


The impacts of COVID-19 are still being felt, as strict travel restrictions over the past few months have also prevented the usual number of nurses flying in from overseas to work in Australia, while active COVID-19 testing sites have pushed staff from the hospitals.

Duff blamed the State Government for not acting decisively.

“We need to fix the staffing crisis; we need to actually acknowledge that there is a staffing crisis and we need to guarantee that there is a minimum number of nurses,” Duff said.

Last week, she attended a nursing conference in Sydney to discuss plans ahead of the next State Election, with hopes the State Government will implement effective measures to alleviate staff shortages.

“The government needs to stop looking at the short-term; stealing nurses from overseas, which I think is morally and ethically quite irresponsible because we are asking for other countries to train nurses for us,” she said, adding that the attractiveness of the profession and more undergraduate nursing programs were ways the Government could combat the crisis.

“There is a whole generation of baby boomers who are now coming up to retirement and nursing was one of the only options they were given as young people… they need to make it look attractive to captivate young people into the profession.

“Another hole in our system is that we are producing thousands of new graduates from universities every year who don’t get jobs …we need to look at everybody getting that fourth year of clinical practice so that they can apply for jobs to help with the staff shortages.”

We’re not being frivolous, we’re not being greedy, we’re not being financially irresponsible, it’s all backed up in data and evidence that ratios save lives.

A senior research nurse, who did not want to be named for this story, said analysis she conducted to provide the best care for patients showed healthcare workers were under immense pressures from shortages.

“I’m not seeing patients myself, but I’m hearing the burnout; people constantly talking about what their exit plan is, whether they’re experienced nurses or only just starting out in their career,” she told Central News.

She added there were health initiatives she believes would help to limit patients in hospitals and take the pressure off nursing staff.

“I think we need to address preventative health, things like preventing heart disease, preventing cancer, and starting right at a young age, in schools and preschools even, teaching kids how to be healthy I think that would really help decrease patients in hospitals,” she said.

“We also need to have campaigns that are targeted towards older populations on things like advanced care directing and end-of-life planning.”

Both nurses spoke of the lack of momentum for nurse-to-patient ratio laws in NSW, which would ensure everyone had access to safe patient care. With the state election looming, it is a key demand of nurses union, The NSW Nurses and Midwives Association.

“We need nurse-to-patient ratios. Every three patients need one nurse, then we can stop burning out all of our staff,” said Duff.

The Association’s Ratios Life or Death campaign aims to spread awareness to the wider public on the healthcare crisis and prompt the State Government to help address staff shortages.

Ratios life or death campaign logo: screenshot from nswnma site.


Both Victoria and Queensland have created nurse-to-patient ratio laws, with research on the Queensland ratios finding that 185 lives have been saved since the policy came into effect.

“We have to win the next state election with a party who will decide to actually implement the ratios,” Duff said.

“We’re not being frivolous, we’re not being greedy, we’re not being financially irresponsible, it’s all backed up in data and evidence that ratios save lives.”

Main image by Pixabay.