After close to two years on the front lines of this pandemic, nurses are feeling tapped-out, exasperated and dispirited.
Understaffing has plagued our healthcare system for more than a decade, but COVID-19 has only made it worse. Years of government neglect have created untenable working conditions, with acute levels of stress wreaking havoc on nurses’ mental health.
One nurse described the weight of not being able to provide the care patients deserve as “crushing.” Another nurse told us she was leaving the profession – a profession she used to love – because “no help is coming and no one seems to care.”
It’s no wonder so many nurses are looking for the exit sign.
Job vacancies in healthcare and social assistance soared over the summer, representing one in seven openings in Canada – the largest increase of any sector. Openings for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses saw the largest increase of all occupations.
Recently, the Ontario Science Table found rates of severe burnout above 60 per cent among Canadian physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals – a drastic jump from the equally alarming 30 to 40 per cent prevalence rate affecting the sector just a year before.
Nurses and their co-workers are beyond the point of exhaustion and exasperated at the inaction of politicians.
If we want to retain nurses and other healthcare workers, they need immediate support – they need some semblance of hope.
Provinces regularly resort to short-sighted tactics to address their nursing shortage. Often, these amount to nothing but an expensive shell game, drawing nurses from one region to another. This approach will not end this crisis. We need to look upstream to address root causes, such as a lack of appropriate data to inform evidence-based health workforce planning. Governments desperately need this data to better forecast healthcare needs and build a truly responsive healthcare system.
Recently, over 60 national health professional organizations collectively urged the federal government to create a national health workforce agency and provide immediate targeted funding to support retention and recruitment efforts.
We simply can’t afford to continue planning in the dark when it comes to healthcare. It’s time to stop pretending that a responsive healthcare system will materialize out of thin air, absent the data, tools and leadership needed to do the job.
While the Prime Minister and Premiers are inarguably busy managing the pandemic, the nursing shortage is a looming crisis that threatens to undermine those very efforts – without a healthcare team, a bed is just a bed. This crisis demands equal and urgent governmental action and collaboration. It requires working across partisan and jurisdictional lines.
Now more than ever, nurses and their colleagues are desperate for optimism. In 2022, let’s choose to put healthcare ahead of politics.
Linda Silas is a nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.