Picture yourself being greeted by people wearing full personal protective equipment as you disembark your plane, who lead you to a queue for temperature screening, followed by another queue where your detention notice is processed, then onto another queue for your hotel quarantine allocation; all on top of the usual queues for immigration control, baggage collection and customs declaration. Doesn’t it sound like a daunting experience?
In 2020, when countries around the world imposed travel restrictions and Australia announced the closure of international borders to non-residents and non-citizens, I accepted a deployment to manage the compliance and enforcement of these travel restrictions for all international ports of entry. This meant that my primary office became Melbourne Airport, with travel to other airports and seaports as needed.
I had never worked at an airport, so I was excited about this deployment. However, my initial feelings of excitement turned into nervousness as the reality of my job sank in.
I can still remember the feeling of meeting passengers—some who were relieved and happy to be back home, some who were irritated and exhausted from the long flight, minors or unaccompanied children who were scared, and many who were anxious and stressed by the new and daunting airport experience they now had to navigate.
My team was responsible for issuing direction and detention notices and answering questions from arriving passengers, particularly concerning their rights and freedoms, because, as soon as they stepped onto Australian soil, they were going to be detained in a hotel for fourteen days.
Most passengers had mixed feelings about this. Some were angry and loud, some were fearful, but most were cooperative and just wanted to understand their rights. And once they understood why they could not be detained at their own homes, they complied with the process.
It was a highly stressful environment. Whenever situations escalated to me, I drew on my nursing skills, particularly in assessment, establishing rapport, providing care, and offering empathy for patients and their families going through unfamiliar situations to resolve problems. Working in a highly regulated environment was challenging, but my team and I understood the importance of our role in protecting Australia from the imported human biosecurity risks associated with COVID-19.
We were committed to making the experience simple, less intimidating and as efficient as possible, balancing the safety and wellbeing of travellers with the need to enforce compliance with the border directions issued by the Chief Health Officer.
As the pandemic wore on, I was faced with increasing levels of anxiety and stress from my team as they started contracting the virus one by one. With staff members needing to isolate, and everyone in the team working longer hours to cover roster gaps, exhaustion was starting to set in, so staff burnout became a real worry for me.
With limited resources, I drew on my experiences working in an operating theatre complex, managing the competing needs of staff and patients to successfully complete the busy surgical lists.
Every day, I had to adapt to new and rapidly changing circumstances and make difficult decisions about allocating resources and services while ensuring that our core services continued. This was when the seriousness of the pandemic and the reality of the virus hit me.
The responsibility of managing my team’s physical, mental and emotional needs, as well as dealing with my own worries, became very challenging. I leaned on my family for support and motivation. I also drew on the courage and commitment of my team and colleagues in keeping Australia safe. It was a powerful bonding experience when we acknowledged that we needed to support one another.
My experience reinforced the importance of identifying and managing fatigue and burnout in the workplace. As many of us are still recovering from the physical exhaustion, as well as the mental and emotional fatigue of working during the pandemic, we need to create more opportunities to discuss openly how we develop a holistic approach to wellbeing and establish and maintain sustainable and compassionate work practices.
While our experiences working during the COVID-19 pandemic may be diverse and complex, one thing remains true for all of us—through all the challenges we encountered, we demonstrated incredible resilience and dedication, going above and beyond the call of duty.
And though the world will eventually move on from the pandemic, it will forever serve as a powerful reminder to me of why I chose this profession.