The following opinion editorial first appeared in National Newswatch on May 8, 2023.
By Linda Silas
Nursing Week is a time to recognize nurses for their dedication and the important role they play in health care. We know people in Canada appreciate nurses, and I take this opportunity to send my personal thank you to all 459,000.
Like many I want to feel celebratory, but I am struggling.
Nurses warned about staffing shortages and hallway medicine well before the pandemic, but now we are facing a crisis even worse than we feared.
In just the last quarter of 2022, there was a 17 percent increase in nursing vacancies across the country. A third of nurses are over 50 and nearing retirement, meaning vacancy rates will only continue to climb without action.
Nurses are working longer and harder with no end in sight. Overtime hours for nurses hit record highs last summer and will probably peak again this summer. Mandatory overtime, double shifts and cancelled vacations are now commonplace. It is no wonder many nurses are looking for the exit sign.
A recent poll commissioned by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) revealed that four in 10 nurses want to leave their job or the profession, or retire. Why? Most feel their workplaces are regularly understaffed and overcapacity.
This takes a toll on nurses. Eight out of 10 have registered some form of burnout, while over seven in 10 experience symptoms of anxiety or depression. And let’s be clear, what nurses are asking for is pretty basic. Most say scheduling flexibility and guaranteed days off would keep them in their jobs.
I recently spoke to an experienced frontline nurse about the long hours she’s being asked to work. She said that “around hour 20” she started to get confused. These are words no patient or family member wants to hear.
The fact is, nurses are constantly busy during their shifts, and patients rely on them for their well-being. But you can’t expect any human to function well after 20+ hours on the job – especially not when the stakes are as high as for a nurse in a hospital ward. This must change. The bottom line is: you cannot save lives without sleep.
I know nurses, and they will not say ‘no’ when asked to stay working after their scheduled shift is over. They do not want to leave patients unsupported or let their colleagues down. Our laws strictly regulate hours for truckers and pilots, but nurses have no such protection.
Nurses want respect. And they want to be able to deliver the best care for their patients. Nurses’ unions have raised alarm bells, and thankfully some governments have responded. British Columbia just became the first jurisdiction in Canada to mandate nurse-to-patient ratios. This would mean clear standards of care and enough nurses to support patients in overcrowded hospital wards. On Canada’s East Coast, Nova Scotia’s retention payments for nurses were a welcome – though long overdue – step towards improved recruitment and retention. Now we need to see these kinds of actions taken across the country if we are going to retain frontline nurses and deliver quality care to patients.
The new federal bilateral health care deals with the provinces are welcome, but the reality is negotiations will take time. And time is quickly running out for nurses. We urgently need a coordinated pan-Canadian action plan to immediately tackle retention and recruitment.
For the sake of nurses and patients alike, let’s hope governments celebrate Nursing Week this year by finally giving Canada’s frontline nurses a break and some respect.
Linda Silas is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, the national voice for nearly 250,000 nurses and student nurses across Canada.