Referendum: Why are the Swiss voting on nursing conditions?

Swiss hospitals are short-staffed and nurses are overworked.
The upcoming referendum will focus on improving working conditions of nurses. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Swiss voters will cast their ballots on November 28th on a proposal to improve working conditions for nurses. This is what’s at stake.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shed light on a crucial role nurses and other medical professionals play not only in managing a health crisis, but also the more mundane but nevertheless essential tasks involved in patient care.

But according to the Swiss Association of Nurses, which launched the so-called ‘nursing care initiative’, more must be done to improve health employees’ work conditions and maintain high-quality nursing care.

What is the proposal calling for?

At the centre of the initiative is the shortage of nurses in Switzerland.

About 10,000 caregivers are needed urgently right now, with additional 70,500 needed within the next eight years, said Rebecca Spirig, Director of Nursing at the University Hospital in Zurich.

“As it is, the situation is untenable”, she added.

And because there are not enough caregivers, the existing personnel is working longer hours, resulting in increased workloads and exhaustion, which cause many nurses to quit their jobs.

That, in turn, creates even more shortages and a vicious circle that, the association says, must be broken.

To achieve this, the initiative is calling mainly for sufficient nursing staff to ensure the quality of patient care, as well as training of more caregivers to relieve the pressure on the health personnel and avoid burnouts and dropouts in the profession.

Another benefit of training more nurses is that Switzerland will rely less on foreign workers. At Geneva’s university hospital (HUG), for instance, 60 percent of medical personnel are cross-border workers from France.

“Without foreign employees, our healthcare system would no longer function. This great dependency is problematic. It is imperative that we train more nurses domestically”, Spirig said.

READ MORE: How do nurses’ salaries in Switzerland compare to the rest of the world?

The government is against the proposal — this is why

The Federal Council and parliament believe that this initiative is too extreme and goes too far, especially with regard to the government role in regulating working conditions and wages.

Authorities have created their own counter-project, proposing to invest up to 1 billion francs over eight years to train more caregivers.

The counter-proposal will come into force if the original initiative is rejected by voters.

Which of the two proposals — the nursing association’s or the government’s — is more likely to pass?

Latest polls show the former is the more likely winner.

The one carried out by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation shows that 78 percent of voters support the nurses’ version.

A nearly the same result — 77 percent — is reported by another recent poll, conducted by Tamedia media group.

READ MORE: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid referendum on November 28th?

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