Nurses call for action on staffing crisis

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The current pandemic has hurled us toward a full-blown nursing crisis.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/08/2021 (396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The current pandemic has hurled us toward a full-blown nursing crisis.

In virtually every part of the country, in every health-care setting, there isn’t enough front-line staff to provide the quality care that Canadians need. Our health-care system stands at the brink of catastrophe.

We need to stop planning in the dark when it comes to health care. The long-standing nurse staffing crisis calls for better national planning. A federal health workforce agency — modelled after what already exists for Canada’s construction industry — would allow us to better manage staffing needs and design a health-care system that is truly responsive to the needs of Canadians.

The current crisis extends beyond existing vacancies; an alarming number of nurses are looking for the exit. A national pre-COVID-19 survey found 60 per cent of nurses intended to leave their jobs within the year, with more than one-quarter saying they wanted to leave nursing altogether.

To stem the bleeding, we need an immediate national moratorium on layoffs in nursing and innovative retention strategies. While recruitment strategies are vital, the successful onboarding of new grads relies heavily on the mentorship provided by more experienced nurses.

Without urgent action by governments, more nurses will choose to leave the profession. Canadians, meanwhile, will only see the quality and timeliness of care worsen.

Before the pandemic, nurses were already struggling with impossible workloads, excessive and often mandated overtime, rampant workplace violence, and a persistent lack of workplace protections. Pre-pandemic, mandated overtime was a widespread practice in many Manitoba hospitals: Manitoba nurses worked 686,479 hours of overtime in 2019; this increased by 12 per cent to 767,898 hours in 2020.

These conditions have had an alarming impact on nurses’ mental and physical health. Of the more than 7,000 nurses across Canada surveyed in 2019, nine in 10 reported symptoms of burnout. Levels of depression, generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD symptoms were similar to those for police and correctional officers.

The pandemic only added to nurses’ psychological load. Watching patients, residents and colleagues fall ill or die, worrying about potentially taking COVID-19 home to their families, and not being provided with the proper PPE to do their jobs safely — all of it took a further toll on their mental health.

The pandemic also led to countless hours of overtime, back-to-back 12-hour shifts and the cancellation of scheduled leaves; in other words, nurses have had no downtime.

In early 2021, about 20 per cent of all job vacancies in Canada — almost 100,000 positions — were in the health-care and social-assistance sector. Nursing positions often remained vacant for 90 days or more, a trend that is likely to continue as more nurses leave the profession.

Most recently, years of government neglect culminated in provinces pleading with each other for nurses and, as a stopgap measure, employing staff who lacked specialized skills.

In Manitoba, the COVID-19 pandemic made the existing nurse shortage worse. As of mid-2021, there were double-digit nurse vacancy rates in all health regions; 75 per cent of rural health regions had nurse vacancy rates of 20 per cent or more, while in the urban regions, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority vacancy rate was more than 17 per cent and the Shared Health vacancy rate was 19 per cent, exceeding the maximum rate the government had deemed “acceptable.”

With ICUs overflowing and insufficient staff, more than 50 Manitobans had to be transported to neighbouring provinces to receive care. In a recent vote, Manitoba nurses voted in favour of strike action, with retention and recruitment as a top priority in bargaining.

While politicians applauded nurses when the cameras were rolling, many undermined them behind the scenes. With COVID-19 not even in the rear-view mirror, some provinces are already looking to balance their budgets on the backs of nurses, through wage freezes, rollbacks and layoffs.

As nurses, we want to give our patients the care they deserve, we want to be safe when we go to work, and we want to be treated fairly by our governments and employers.

On Sept. 17, nurses will rally in Manitoba and across Canada to demand the transformative change needed to make the health-care system better for everyone. Our universal, publicly funded health-care system has long been a source of national pride; we hope all Canadians will stand with us to fight the erosion of this important national treasure.

Linda Silas is a registered nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. Darlene Jackson is a registered nurse and president of the Manitoba Nurses Union.

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