Leadership Notes

Fighting together, nurses can create change

March 14, 2023

by Linda Silas, President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Unions

Nurses have long borne the brunt of a chronically underfunded health care system. The strain of the pandemic only served to highlight and worsen the impact that years of government neglect have had on health care workers: high prevalence of burnout, unsustainable hours, and patients lashing out in frustration.

The strength and resilience of nurses should always be commended, but it cannot continue to be the band-aid solution to a health care system in crisis. Nurses, working themselves ragged, cannot continue to be collateral damage of chronic government neglect.

Now, the nurse staffing shortage is a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before and the impact on nurses and safe patient care is harrowing. This crisis crosses borders, impacting health care workers and patients in every province and territory. In fact, Canada isn’t the only country facing a critical nursing shortage.

The global scope of this crisis is staggering. A recent report by the International Council of Nurses suggests that, in the aftermath of the COVID-19, an acceleration in the exodus of nurses could see the global nursing shortage balloon to 13 million nurses. In 2020, the World Health Organization estimated the global nursing shortfall at 5.9 million.

The International Council of Nurses has dubbed the global health workforce shortage the greatest threat to global health.

Amidst this dire staffing shortage, nurses are standing up for patient care across the globe.

This January, nurses in the United Kingdom have returned to the picket lines to protest severe understaffing putting patient care at risk. The Royal College of Nurses is protesting years of government underinvestment in nursing and calling for pay increases and safe staffing models to start retaining nurses.

In the same month, nurses at two of New York’s largest hospitals took strike action demanding safe nurse-to-patient ratios to reduce nurses’ workloads and protect patient safety. In a major victory, the hospitals agreed to safe staffing ratios, ending the strike in just three days.

In Montreal, nurses recently protested with an overnight sit-in to demand a solution to short-staffing and the protection of patient care. In Australia, Spain, New Zealand, Mexico, Uganda, Finland, and Denmark, nurses have taken action to demand improved working conditions and an end to short staffing.

With many countries grappling with a nursing shortage, it’s clear that recruiting nurses cannot be the singular solution. The global perspective demonstrates the need for solutions that get to the root of the issue: chronic government underfunding.

Increasingly, as nursing shortages grind health care services to a halt, governments are finally waking up to nurses’ indispensable role and the current tenuousness of an understaffed health care system.

Whether in Canada or New Zealand, the fundamentals of the solutions are the same: investing in nurses and health care workers. Tackling the nursing shortage requires robust, evidence-based health human resources planning and multi-pronged approaches that prioritize retention, return and recruitment.

This is the message Canada’s nurses’ unions are bringing to governments across the country. Nurses have solutions to this growing crisis, and it’s time to act on them. By respecting, supporting, and investing in health care workers, governments can turn the tide on the nursing shortage.

There are concrete actions the federal government can take now to start retaining nurses and protecting patients. Join and share our call for the federal government to launch a Nurse Retention Fund in the next budget: https://www.safepatient.care/budget-2023

Nurses’ unions are working together, fighting for our profession and our patients. Together, we can build safer, healthier working environments where workers have the support they need to offer their patients the best care possible.