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Nurses join ranks of top 10 drinkers

New research estimates around 46,500 nurses and midwives in Australia and New Zealand engage in harmful drinking. By Linda Belardi.

Nurses working long hours are drinking harmful amounts of alcohol, a new study shows, prompting calls for workplace intervention programs to protect public safety and nursing staff.

The study of more than 4400 nurses and midwives in Australia and New Zealand found 14 per cent engaged in harmful daily drinking, placing nursing in the top 10 of professions that abuse alcohol.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Queensland and the University of Otago, New Zealand, the study found the odds of harmful daily drinking increased the more hours a nurse spent at work.

Long working hours were common, with 33 per cent of nurses working between 40 and 50 hours per week and 7.5 per cent working 50-plus hours.

“Nursing and midwifery are demanding professions, carrying high levels of public and professional performance expectations. Meeting or trying to meet these demands can come at a high personal cost,” the authors write in a soon-to-be-published research paper.

They said working long and irregular hours may predispose some nurses to harmful drinking.

“Since the late 1970s, the average hours worked by full-time employees in Australia has increased. Unless these long working hours can be curbed, workforce policies and programmes aimed at prevention, intervention and recovery need to be instigated.”

Overall, 14 per cent of nurses and midwives said they consumed more than two standard drinks per day, but only 1 per cent self-reported an alcohol dependence problem. Most participants were female, aged 40–49 years, in married or de facto relationships, and non-smokers.

Significantly, this rate was substantially higher than the 6–10 per cent of nurses abusing alcohol reported in previous studies.

Extrapolating these findings to the total workforce, the authors estimated around 46,500 nurses and midwives across the two countries consumed harmful amounts of alcohol.

The authors used these findings to add to international calls for increased awareness for the detection of alcoholism in nurses.

“While there is often a culture of permissibility and adherence to an informal code of silence around drinking, nursing and midwifery staff with alcohol problems compromise workplace and patient safety,” the authors said.

There was a pressing need to address this issue as alcohol abuse had significant personal health, workforce and financial costs.

In high-income countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, alcohol was the second leading risk factor for burden of disease, and the associated cost of harmful alcohol use was “colossal”, the authors said.

In Australia, the cost of alcohol abuse was estimated to represent more than $15.3 billion or 2.3 per cent of GDP.

The study of 3500 Australian nurses and midwives and 860 from New Zealand is due to appear in the International Journal of Nursing Studies.

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