While 67 per cent of Ontario’s registered practical nurses (RPNs) say they’ve never been more proud to be a nurse, 71 per cent also report experiencing a breaking point related to their job over the past several months. The dire mental health toll and financial stressors on nurses have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with one in three nurses (34 per cent) considering leaving this critical profession.
These findings, released today, come from a comprehensive poll that was administered by the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario (WeRPN) to 765 RPNs across Ontario in December 2020. WeRPN represents the professional voices of 47,000 RPNs across the province. RPNs are nurses who work in all sectors of healthcare, including high-risk areas impacted by COVID-19, such as long-term care, retirement facilities and hospitals.
“Ontarians have always felt a deep sense of gratitude for the dedicated work of our nurses, but this study underscores the need for all of us to galvanize our gratitude into immediate and long-term policies that better support nurses,” said Dianne Martin, CEO, Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario (WeRPN). “Otherwise, we could lose many talented nurses at a time when we urgently need them, which would be devastating.”
Nursing associations and health care partners have been warning about the consequences of Ontario’s nursing shortage. There is also public consensus that Ontario is already facing nursing shortages and has been for some time. According to a January 2020 Omnibus poll conducted among members of the Angus Reid Forum, 95 per cent of Ontarians expressed a desire to see more nurses hired to meet the growing needs of the province, especially for its aging population.
Martin added: “If we walked a day in our nurses’ shoes right now, we simply couldn’t unsee the difficulties – the immense pressure and strain – that so many of them are facing.” Consider some of the top findings from this just-released WeRPN study:
- Separated from family: 83 per cent of nurses reported reducing time they spend with their immediate family due to concerns about exposing loved ones to the coronavirus from their work.
- Increased workload, reduced wages: 90 per cent of nurses said their workload has increased since COVID-19 became a reality, while 57 per cent are experiencing financial stress as a result of the pandemic. In addition, close to a third (32 per cent) of nurses have had to leave a job (pick one job over another) due to necessary, but personally challenging government policies restricting many nurses to one workplace. Incidentally, Ontario’s personal support workers (PSWs) recently received a temporary pay increase by the government to support retention and recognize the important work they do. However, this wage increase was not extended to RPNs for their crucial contributions, which in many cases are taking place within the same environments.
- Exponentially more stressed, without adequate mental health support: Nearly all respondents (96 per cent) said their daily experiences at work have become exponentially more stressful due to the presence of COVID-19 in the province. Eighty-three per cent feel like their mental health has been adversely affected by their work, but even more alarmingly, 67 per cent say they don’t have adequate mental health support to face the second wave of COVID-19.
This study – the first of its kind in Ontario, entitled: “Wellness, workload and wages – How RPNs are personally coping amid the pandemic” highlighted realities for nurses both at work and at home, since the pandemic hit the province in March 2020. Many personal stories shared in the study relay not only tears of heartbreak, but also of real humanity and hope. Below are excerpts from nurses in the study, relaying their personal experiences:
- Doing what needs to be done: “I slept underneath a desk, as I couldn’t leave the nursing home because there were too many critical patients that needed my attention, and we had no staff. I’ve had to be a caregiver, a nurse, housekeeper, family, friend, dietitian and even infection control lead.”
- Personal sacrifices with long-term consequences: “I’m a single mom. When COVID-19 hit in March, I moved to my parents’ apartment, and they moved to my house to care for my 3-year-old. It was devastating to us all. I stayed away until COVID-testing was opened to anyone and I could be sure that I was not infected. But my daughter now suffers from separation anxiety and sleep issues.”
- Witnessing final good-byes and supporting loved ones: “I have held hands with those dying alone.” Another respondent shared: “We provide support to families whose loved ones are dying or who have died. That for me is heroic- keeping it together as a nurse and not breaking down in front of family members.”
These stories exemplify that nurses continue to go above and beyond the call of duty. Their commitment to caring for others, at times at the expense of their own personal well-being, has not gone unnoticed by the public. A separate study conducted among members of the Angus Reid Forum in December 2020, revealed an overwhelming majority of Ontarians (94 per cent) recognize nurses have had increased stressors put on their mental health amid COVID-19. Further, 90 per cent of respondents want nurses to receive additional mental health support.
“Even though our nurses are giving their all each and every day at work, COVID-19 is still taking a very raw and real toll on them, with lingering, long-term consequences ahead,” said Martin. “For both the public and policymakers, this is our chance to show these amazing frontline caregivers that we as a society will take care of them too – especially as they need it most right now.”
Members of the public can do their part Martin says, by continuing to follow public health guidelines as best they can to ease pressure on nurses. These include: Not seeing people outside of their immediate household, physical distancing in public, restricting trips outside of the home to essential purposes only, wearing masks, and carefully washing hands often. Ontario is currently in a provincial state of emergency, with stay-at-home orders in effect.
“WeRPN is also asking our government to prioritize the critical challenges facing our nurses now,” said Martin. Based on the survey findings, the organization’s top asks of policymakers are to:
- Continue the swift rollout of COVID-19 vaccines so healthcare workers and residents/patients are protected, with immediate priority given to those who are most at risk or in high-risk settings
- Create more full-time positions for nurses and ensure RPNs are fairly compensated for the integral work that they do
- Enhance retention of the nursing workforce by creating more opportunities for continuing education and career advancement
- Enhance mental health supports for nurses and their fellow healthcare workers, specifically, to address the significant mental and emotional toll brought on by COVID-19, which will linger long after the pandemic is over
- Leverage the unique experience and expertise of nurses on the front lines by ensuring that their voices are foundational to any future consultations and decision making on healthcare reform and policy in Ontario
In the interim, Martin is encouraging nurses across Ontario to also access information from WeRPN on the current mental health supports that are available to them at: WeRPN.com
SOURCE Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario (WeRPN)