Three-quarters of nurses working in primary health care feel stressed and exhausted at work, with one in four planning to leave their job within two to five years.
An annual survey by the Australian Primary Healthcare Nurses Association (APNA) heard from about 4000 people, its largest sample in the 15 years it has been conducted.
The 2022 workforce survey found two-thirds of primary healthcare nurses were working overtime, and two-thirds said they had an excessive workload.
One in four planned to leave within the next two to five years, and one in 10 planned to find another job within the next 12 months.
APNA president Karen Booth said if the same trends were occurring in the corporate sector, there would be an outcry.
"We are not only talking about a loss of workforce investment here, we are talking about the loss of corporate knowledge that we would normally expect would train and support the new workforce entrants," she said.
Ms Booth said the impact would be felt for years as experienced personnel left the profession, taking valuable training opportunities with them.
"A strong, properly enabled, nursing workforce means a strong primary healthcare sector that meets the health needs of the community," she said.
Those in primary health care work outside hospitals within general practice, aged care facilities, schools and other settings and make up one in seven of the 640,000 registered health professionals in Australia.
APNA said an exodus of staff would affect heart-health education and management programs, vaccinations, wound care and screening for diseases including breast cancers.
The survey found many staff in primary health care felt "invisible" to policy makers because they were not working within hospitals.
Nurses working at GP clinics said they felt under-utilised, while aged care workers most worried about staffing levels and receiving a 15 per cent government-mandated pay increase.
APNA welcomed the federal government's national nursing strategy to boost numbers and its push to reform Medicare.
Ms Booth urged nurses to fill out the 2023 survey.
"Now is the time for a call to arms for nurses to help inform the future direction of our workforce," she said.
Australian Associated Press