Many Ontario nurses are considering leaving the profession as pandemic stress leads to burnout, poll finds

Pam Parks, a registered practical nurse in the emergency ward of a large Durham Region hospital, says she’s haunted by the images of patients who are wheeled in sick with COVID-19.

One in particular stands out. A male patient admitted on a large, lumpy stretcher was deemed palliative a few days ago. He died in the ER on the stretcher.

“Why? Because there were no beds. That is shameful and wrong in so many ways,” Parks told a Zoom call Sunday afternoon for RPNs who belong to two unions: the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (a division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees) and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Healthcare.

Parks talked about the burnout that nurses like her face every day, dealing with the pandemic. The stress and workload have increased “10-fold” since COVID-19 hit, she said.

“When I arrive at work, I sit in my car in the parking lot for a few minutes to collect my thoughts. Then I pray and hope this day will be better for all the patients, my co-workers and myself,” she told the meeting.

She called on the province to provide more compensation for nurses, more protective equipment, mental health supports, more beds and more nursing jobs, in addition to ensuring nurses are fully vaccinated.

Her calls are in line with the findings of two large surveys done for the two unions, results that paint a dire picture of how nurses in Toronto and the province are being affected by the pandemic.

One of the more surprising results in one of the surveys is that 40 per cent of registered practical nurses in Toronto say they are “considering or may” leave nursing.

“There was a crisis in health care before the pandemic, and now the public knows it has become critical,” SEIU Healthcare president Sharleen Stewart told the meeting.

“This is our warning. Premier (Doug) Ford, listen. The alarm bells are ringing. Hospital services will never improve unless we support nurses, in particular registered practical nurses,” Stewart added.

The recent survey conducted by Oracle Polls for the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) found that 86 per cent of respondents in Ontario and 90 per cent in Toronto believe the potential for medical errors has increased in the last year.

In Ontario, 70 per cent of respondents, and 66 per cent in Toronto, said violence from patients or their families toward the nurses or their co-workers has increased in the past year, according to the OCHU/CUPE survey.

A total of 40 per cent of nurses are considering leaving the field in Toronto, 29 per cent provincewide, with most saying they would stay if they had a pay increase.

Over half of respondents both provincewide and in Toronto said they are coping poorly at work. A total of 45 per cent in Ontario said their mental health is now poor, as did 36 per cent in Toronto.

The OCHU/CUPE represents 13,000 hospital-based RPNs, and a total of 2,650 responded to the telephone survey by Oracle.

Registered practical nurses have college diplomas and help patients with more general or straightforward health matters. Registered nurses (RNs) have a bachelor’s degree from a university and deal with more complex health issues.

The SEIU’s own poll collected responses from 564 RPNs in the hospital sector.

Among those respondents, 72 per cent said they believe current staffing is insufficient for quality patient care. Seventy-four per cent said they had experienced workplace bullying and 66 per cent had witnessed a co-worker experiencing violence.

A total of 93 per cent reported both mental and physical exhaustion.

OCHU/CUPE president Michael Hurley said the polls show RPNs feel exhausted, undervalued and unsupported. Many aren’t yet fully vaccinated and many have died, he added.

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He said the province needs to “reverse course” in these areas.

Hurley went on to say nurses should be able to “bargain real wage increases.”

In a statement, Ministry of Health spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene said the province values the contributions of Ontario’s nurses, adding that it invested more than $ 52 million to recruit, retain and support over 3,700 more front-line health-care workers and caregivers in its fall COVID-19 preparedness plan — “one of the largest health-care recruiting and training initiatives in the province’s history.”

On a related issue, Ontario Nurses’ Association president Vicki McKenna is calling for the pay of nurses in the province to better reflect their work during the pandemic. The ONA represents registered nurses and other health-care professionals.

McKenna was referring to changes the province brought in last year in its “temporary physician funding for hospitals during the COVID-19 outbreak.” This funding was intended to help with staffing challenges at hospitals that encounter a surge of patients as a result of the pandemic.

According to a widely circulated memo obtained by the Star, a doctor redeployed to work in an intensive care unit from 7 a.m. to midnight for example, would get $ 385 an hour, and $ 450 per hour from midnight to 7 a.m.

The April 2020 memo was sent to the Ministry of Health and Ontario hospitals from Patrick Dicerni, interim assistant deputy minister and general manager of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan division, and Mike Heenan, assistant deputy minister of the hospitals and capital division.

In an interview, McKenna said an RN with 25 years of experience makes about $ 48 an hour, wherever they work.

“It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison but it’s hard for nurses to work alongside and often oversee doctors making wages like that,” McKenna said.

She went on to say that “at the very least” nurses should be excluded from Bill 124, which the ONA says is “wage suppression legislation” that negatively impacts nurses.

The province says the bill, passed in 2019, is intended to ensure public sector wages are reflective of Ontario’s fiscal situation. The act establishes different “three-year moderation periods for represented and non-represented employees.”

During the applicable moderation period, salary increases are limited to one per cent for each 12-month period of the moderation time, the act says.

Ontario says its public sector employees will, under the legislation, still be able to receive salary increases for seniority, performance or increased qualifications, as is the case currently.

TORONTO STAR