January 20, 2022 — For 22 months nurses and other health workers have shouldered the enormous burden of the pandemic. They are burnt out, demoralized, and have little left to give.
The emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant that is fuelling the fifth wave of this pandemic deeply concerns the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) and the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) with regard to the state of Canada’s health workforce. For months we have been warning that our health system is on the brink of collapse and this new variant may be the final straw.
Even before COVID-19, health care workers across Canada were under extreme stress due to excessive workloads and shortages. Now, the pandemic has not only increased the workload of nurses, but has also significantly elevated concerns regarding physical safety and ethical dilemmas, which have unsurprisingly led nurses to report worsening mental health and high rates of burnout. Rates of anxiety and depression among nurses have increased over 40% during this pandemic, and we can surmise that the exponential rates of the Omicron variant in the last few weeks will only add to this trend.
Preliminary studies show that one-third of nurses have given thought to leaving their health care facility and/or the profession altogether. Critical care shortages have been further exacerbated by large numbers of health workers being unable to work due to isolation requirements.
This has forced many hospitals across Canada to close beds and scale back emergency services, directly affecting those who are seeking care. Patients must travel much longer distances to access needed services and long-awaited surgeries are once again being postponed.
For those in hospital, critical staff shortages are challenging expected standards of care due to increasing patient-to-nurse ratios and re-deployment of staff. In many areas, multiple patients are being cared for by one nurse, putting patient safety at serious risk.
Canada’s nursing workforce deserves better than this, and we cannot have a functioning health care system without a healthy workforce. How can decision-makers help?
Governments must work together as a federation in crisis to immediately negotiate innovative strategies that include financial incentives such as wages and retention bonuses, to encourage senior nurses to remain in practice, and targeted loan forgiveness programs, to support new graduates. Nurses also deserve safe working conditions, which should include immediate deployment of mental health resources to the front lines and additional efforts to ensure safe patient-to-nurse ratios. Nationally, the development of health workforce strategies is needed to guide the retention and recruitment of nurses through enhanced data and best practices.
Canada’s health care system has never been tested to this extent. If immediate action is not taken, we risk pushing the health workforce past its breaking point. Without health workers, there can be no health care.
President, Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions
Tim Guest, M.B.A., B.Sc.N., RN
President, Canadian Nurses Association