‘You just felt chronically tired’: COVID-19 pandemic burning out Canadian nurses

There’s more evidence of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on health-care workers.

As a nurse, Sarah Walji has shouldered more than her share of the pandemic.

“You’re working 60-110 hours a week. And I know that’s just not myself. It’s a bunch of my colleagues as well.”

In addition to being a public health nurse, Walji is a psychiatric nurse in Oakville, Ont. In the past year, she says she encountered more patients with urgent mental health crises. Eventually, it became too much.

“I was having quite a lot of abdominal pain, quite a lot of fatigue as well. You just felt chronically tired. And that’s coupled with burnout.”

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After cutting back on her workweek, she felt guilty.

“I shouldn’t be burnt out this early in my career. I shouldn’t be going through this. So then that aspect of guilt phase [sets in] where it’s like, ‘I don’t want my colleagues to have to ever go through this.’”

Warnings of burnout among health workers have been ringing for months, especially in a health-care system that’s chronically understaffed nationwide.

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Before COVID 19, there were signs of improvement. A report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows the number of regulated nurses in Canada actually increased, by 1.9 per cent between 2018 and 2019, to a total of 439,975.

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But the pandemic is producing troubling stats.

In a survey of 2,100 nurses conducted by the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario in February, 95.7 per cent of respondents reported stress from the pandemic, and, at least 13 per cent of registered nurses aged 26 to 35 said they’re very likely to leave the profession after the pandemic is over. That’s four times the normal rate of attrition for that age group.

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In Toronto, long-time registered nurse Liz Romano says the pandemic is devastating her colleagues.

“I get many calls at night, because I am a representative of our union in our site, and they’re crying.

“The nurses are going home crying.”

Her union, the Ontario Nurses Association, says the province has the lowest nurse-to-patient ratio in Canada. Michael Hurley, of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says the Ford government’s promise to improve health-care staffing is undercut by other realities, like wage restraints on current employees.

“They’re limited this year to a one per cent wage increase, under law. That doesn’t apply to police, fire, paramedics or other essential service workers. It applies to them.”

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But help is on the way, from nursing students flowing through accelerated university programs.

Twenty-one-year-old Sydney Flores was just accepted into nursing at the University of British Columbia. Flores says she was inspired, as a child, by nurses caring for loved ones who passed away.

“I really witnessed the kindness and compassion of nurses and I thought to myself ‘that’s what I want to devote the rest of my life to providing as well.’”

Universities are reporting an increase in students applying to enter nursing schools. Applications at UBC have gone up from 500 a year to 800, for 120 available spaces. Many nursing students say the pandemic only strengthens their resolve.

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“You hear the nurses talking about just how awful it is sometimes,” says Jessica Wingfield, who has completed her final year at the University of Ottawa.

“Definitely, the nerves come in and I get a little bit scared to jump into it. But for the most part, I’m pretty eager to get out there and start helping out.”

In her final year of nursing at Dalhousie University, Anika Daclan says the pandemic has brought to light challenges within the sector.

“COVID has highlighted the different long-standing inequities in our health-care system. And moving forward, I think that is something I’d like — to work in combating those systemic inequalities.”

But, Linda Silas of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, which represents 200,000 nurses, says attracting enough new nurses to offset pandemic burnout and attrition requires extreme measures.

“Why don’t we just give free education for health-care workers, health-care professionals throughout the country for four, six years? Until we get over this bump.”
Silas says she’s glad help is on the way, but, doubts it will be enough.

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