“How long can people really work at this pace?” asks nursing union

Chatham-Kent Health Alliance nurses celebrating Nursing Week 2021. Photo via CKHA. May 14, 2021.

As Nursing Week winds down, there were many deserved accolades and tributes for nurses but there were also concerns voiced about the future of the profession.

It’s no secret that nurses are exhausted because of the pandemic and some are fed up with their working conditions to the point that they’re quitting or retiring early.

President of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) Vicki McKenna said nurses across the province are telling her they can’t do it anymore because they are emotionally and physically spent.

“Nurses said to me it feels oppressive, it feels like there’s this dark cloud and some of them tell me ‘I just don’t know if I can do it anymore or for how long I can do it,’ and that’s what really worries me for the now and the future,” said Mckenna.

McKenna said there was a nursing shortage before COVID-19 started with 10-20 per cent vacancies across the board and it’s not going to get any better with the average age of a nurse in Ontario being around 49 and soon eligible to retire.

She said some nurses have already left the workforce early for their own well-being and because they lost their passion for the profession and didn’t feel fully protected from infection on the front line even with personal protective equipment.

McKenna added it may take years for the surgical backlog to clear up after non-urgent and elective surgeries were delayed to deal with the pandemic and nurses are wondering when they will be able to take a vacation after very little time off over the past 14 months.

“How long can people really work at this pace,” McKenna questioned. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in order to be able to sustain a system that has to deal with the backlog.”

She said many nurses are working overtime and some get called back to work on their days off. McKenna noted every profession has limits to the workload to deal with fatigue and nursing is no exception. She admitted she worries about mental mistakes being made because of fatigue.

McKenna said adding more nursing spaces at post-secondary institutions is a must moving forward and bringing back retired nurses to act as mentors and support for new nurses would also help. She added nurses are weary and it’s time for action because words don’t cut it anymore.

“It’s the respect and recognition for the profession because I believe nursing is the backbone of our health care system and if we don’t look after them, we’re going to have a very serious problem,” she said.

The Ontario government is increasing enrollment in nursing programs at colleges and universities across the province with the aim of hiring 2,000.

Chief Nursing Executive at the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance Lisa Northcott said there is no doubt that working during a pandemic has been very challenging and it may impact the decisions those working in health care are making about their careers.

“We are very mindful that the pandemic has been and continues to be very stressful for all of our staff and physicians,” said Northcott. “We are in a constant state of recruitment for nurses, physicians, and other allied health professionals and predict we will be for months to come.”

Northcott added in order to retain staff, the hospital is focusing on creating a supportive learning and work environment through the development of mentorship programs and continue to build on the work they have done to provide a psychologically safe work place.

The hospital thanked nurses across Chatham-Kent for touching the lives of patients and their loved ones with great care and compassion. Northcott also thanked nurses for their commitment and dedication to the nursing profession and for making a difference daily in the lives of patients and families.

“I am honoured to have spent my career at CKHA working alongside so many dedicated inter-professional teams. I thank you all for the contributions you have made to safe, high-quality, compassionate care for our patients and their families,” said Northcott. “These past 14 months have been some of the most difficult for all of us working in the health care field. This Nursing Week, sincerely, I celebrate and thank all of you.”