Registered Practical Nurses struggling with pandemic stress, workload: poll

New survey reveals many Ontario nurses are contemplating a move out of the healthcare industry due to the pandemic. Brandon Rowe on the harrowing work of nurses on the front lines.

By Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

Pam Parks says she has a routine to pick herself up before she starts every one of her 12-hour hospital shifts these days.

The registered practical nurse drives the five minutes to work at an Oshawa, Ont., hospital with her car radio turned up and sings along in a bid to lift her spirits.

She tries to take her mind, ever so briefly, off the stress, uncertainty and large workload that awaits her in the emergency room that day, as the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rages.

Even after 33 years in the profession, Parks said the pandemic has opened her eyes to the fragility of our health care system and the distress both she and her fellow nurses feel.

“I get into the parking lot and sit, and regroup,” she said, acknowledging that some days its hard to go into work.

“I hope that today will be a better day than it was yesterday,” she said she tells herself. “I hope for a better day for everyone.”

Parks is not alone in her struggles to cope according to a new survey conducted by Oraclepoll Research for the Canadian Union of Public Employees and a separate survey conducted by the Service Employees International Union.

Both polls are being released by the unions Sunday.

The Oraclepoll of 2,600 registered practical nurses that belong to CUPE across the province shows that more than half of those surveyed said they were coping “poorly” or “extremely poorly” at work over the past year of the pandemic.

Just over 80 per cent reported that their workload had “increased a lot”, and 86 per cent said they believe the potential for medical errors has increased over the past 12 months.

Over 90 per cent are worried about bringing COVID-19 home to their families, and 70 per cent reported facing increased violence from patients and their families.

It has all led 30 per cent of the workers surveyed to consider leaving the profession, the poll shows.

A study of over 550 registered practical nurses conducted by the Service Employees International Union reflects similar levels of burn out.

The internal research by the union finds that 94 per cent of RPNs experience working short regularly, and 72 per cent believe staffing insufficient.

Parks said the pandemic is having a profound effect on morale, and she’s seeing it play out every shift.

Nurses who were already working short in many instances are now taking on additional duties to help connect families barred from hospitals because of COVID-19 restrictions, she said.

“We, as nurses, we’re not only now looking after patients health care, but we’re also their support service,” Parks said. “We’re holding their hands and watching some who are at their last stage of life, trying to make sure they’re not alone.”

Ashley MacRae, an RPN at hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont., said the survey results ring true to her.

“When you’re giving everything you can, and it’s not enough anymore, it’s exhausting,” she said. “I just feel like when I talk to my co-workers, they’re burned out, they’re done.”

MacRae said registered practical nurses are making less than their registered nurse colleagues, and with the extreme workload and stress, many are looking for other jobs.

She also worries that trauma experienced by RPNs during the pandemic will be felt for years, as they struggle with their mental health.

“A lot of the nurses I don’t think will ever recover from seeing all of the loss and having to move on to the next loss and having to move on to the next patient and having to continue going on,” she said.

The president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions said the government must address the rising stress on nurses, offer them further mental health supports and increase wages to help with workforce retention.

Michael Hurley said RPNs are working at understaffed facilities, extended shifts, are subject to redeployment, mandatory overtime and most have not had a vacation since the start of the pandemic.

“How long can you expect people to be strong? How long can you expect them to be able to stand up to this?” he said. “They are trying to make sure that people get the care they need during COVID. All of this adds up to enormous pressure on individuals.”

Jackie Walker, with SEIU, said that union is asking the province and hospitals who employ RPNs to offer them more support.

“A really meaningful intervention needs to be taken by our provincial government and by employers to support RPNs financially, with their emotional and mental health,” she said.

Last spring, Premier Doug Ford announced a pandemic pay premium as a way of recognizing the sacrifices essential workers make as they fight the spread of COVID-19. It included a $4 hourly raise over a four month period and a monthly bonus of $250 if they work more than 100 hours in a month.

Registered practical nurses were included in that program, along with 350,000 workers who were eligible for the pay premium.

A statement from a spokeswoman for the health minister pointed to previously announced government supports, including the pandemic pay bump and recruitment efforts, and said the province is working with hospitals on mental health supports for workers.

“Our government values the contributions of Ontario’s nurses, who provide patients with timely, safe and equitable access to high quality care,” Alexandra Hilkene said.

Oraclepoll Research says its telephone survey was conducted from March 29 to April 3, and has a margin of error of 1.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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