Leadership Notes

Why our Focus is on Health Human Resources

March 22, 2022

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

Throughout the pandemic, the CFNU has been countering a false narrative: that the pandemic caused our current nursing shortage. While COVID-19 has certainly affected and upended many areas of our lives – including health care – it is not the root cause of Canada’s nursing shortage.

Let’s be clear: nurses have been working short for years. The pandemic only made it worse.

More and more, we’re hearing of nurses looking for the exit sign. The pandemic not only increased nurses’ workloads, it also added to their psychological load. The prevalence of burnout is rising.

This isn’t just anecdotal; pre-pandemic, the CFNU promoted two different surveys. The first, a study conducted by University of Regina researchers Nicholas Carleton, PhD, and Andrea Stelnicki, PhD, revealed a high prevalence of mental health disorder symptoms with rates similar to those found among law enforcement. More than 83 per cent of nurses felt that the regular core health staff was insufficient to meet the needs of patients. Even pre-pandemic, 29.3 per cent of nurses were reporting clinically significant symptoms of burnout.

Similar findings were also revealed in the CFNU’s Outlook on Nursing study, led by Linda McGillis Hall, RN, PhD, at the University of Toronto. That study found that 60 per cent of nurses intended to leave their job within the next year; a quarter of those intended to leave the nursing profession altogether.

Both studies paint a picture of a health care system in crisis.

The pandemic struck at a time when the system was already stretched thin. Existing health care staff had to carry the weight of that shortage. According to Statistics Canada, nurses’ average weekly overtime hours increased by 78 per cent in May 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.

Twenty months into the pandemic, nurses are finding it impossible to get any semblance of respite. Wave after wave, their vacations were cancelled or pushed back. Much needed time off, which would help alleviate symptoms of burnout, is still out of reach for many.

Immediate interventions are needed to help nurses, including proper psychological support and restorative vacation time. We need standards around safe staffing, such as nurse-patient ratios. And the bottom line is we need more data and data-driven decision-making to fix our broken system.

One of our central demands is for a federal agency tasked with health human resources planning. Our health care system accounted for 11.5 per cent of GDP in 2019, yet Canada is planning in the dark when it comes to this workforce. As wait times grow and the public becomes more dissatisfied with our public health care system, governments often resort to knee-jerk solutions that don’t consider the health care system as a whole. Hiring more doctors makes for a good political sound bite, but does it account for the nursing and support staff needed to provide safe patient care? If we are worried about the patient experience, we need to look at staffing.

There have been great strides in analytical and planning tools in recent decades. But without data, we can’t accurately forecast future staffing needs. This is key to building a responsive health care system. Imagine how different things could have been had governments been able to forecast the extent to which a pandemic, coupled with a nursing shortage, would bring our health care system to its knees.

Canada desperately needs data-driven health human resources planning. It’s key in addressing the nursing shortage, improving our working conditions and providing quality care through safe staffing.

As the saying goes: “The conditions of work are the conditions of care.”