Hamilton RPNs face poor mental health, some thinking of quitting: poll

Half of Hamilton RPNs have poor mental health, and 1 in 3 have considered quitting, poll shows

Bobby Hristova · CBC News · Posted: May 12, 2021 7:55 AM ET | Last Updated: May 12

Registered practical nurses in Hamilton say they are overworked and unappreciated during the pandemic’s third wave. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

When Sonja Bernhard reflects on the past year as a registered practical nurse (RPN) in Hamilton, she said she has to fight back tears.

The nurse at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton says she and her colleagues cry often, sometimes while showering, washing their hands, or as they sit in their car after a long shift where they tried to help people infected with COVID-19.

“I don’t know what else to say without starting to cry,” she said during a virtual press conference on Tuesday.

A new poll released by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) and SEIU Healthcare shows Bernhard’s trauma isn’t an isolated incident.

Oraclepoll Research surveyed 2,600 registered practical nurses, 750 of which were from Hamilton.

1 in 2 Hamilton nurses polled have poor mental health

The results show 52 per cent of those polled said they had poor mental health, while one in three said they had considered leaving or may consider leaving.

Of the nurses considering leaving, 82 per cent say they would stay if their pay was increased.

“Hospitals are about to experience an exodus of registered nurses,” Sharleen Stewart, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare said.

Ninety-six per cent of those surveyed said their workload went up, and 88 per cent said the potential for medical errors has increased.

The survey also showed 38 per cent of those polled were exposed or infected while 25 per cent weren’t paid for all their time off during quarantine.

In Niagara, Jackie Walker, SEIU Healthcare’s nursing division president, said a separate poll from her union showed 93 per cent of local RPNs surveyed said they are mentally and physically exhausted daily.

It also showed 72 per cent said there isn’t enough staffing to provide quality patient care.

The surveys come as hospitals are facing capacity issues and staffing issues due to the pandemic’s third wave.

Local hospitals have implemented intensive care unit (ICU) surge plans, shuffled staff and shuttered services to try to manage the influx of patients from in and out of the region. Hamilton Health Sciences has also been building a field hospital.

As of Tuesday, there are 135 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 62 in the ICU. There are also 23 infected hospital staff and 145 in self-isolation.

Nurses fighting for personal protective equipment

“COVID has created an environment of fear, stress and unpredictability,” Bernhard said.

She recalled a night where she learned a colleague’s mother died of COVID-19, another colleague had a miscarriage and she was told she couldn’t wear personal protective equipment she requested because of the kind of patients she was treating.

Bernhard said she sat in her car for 45 minutes after her shift trying to process it all before going home.

Sonja Bernhard, a registered practical nurse at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said colleagues are leaving the job because of high stress levels during the pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

“People continue to show up and hold the hands of people who are alone … despite increased workloads, increased exposure to COVID.”

Bernhard said it’s sad to see colleagues wanting to leave work, especially since many of them have lots of experience, but she supports them.

“Your team is falling apart actively in front of you … of course you have to support them because what else are you going to do?” she said.

RPN helped manage Shalom Village outbreak

While the poll only surveyed RPNs working in hospitals, some have also worked in long-term care homes. 

Bernhard said she worked at Shalom Village Nursing Home, which had an outbreak that infected more than 100 people.

While she previously worked as an RPN, she said the thought of going there was “daunting.” Arriving was “completely and absolutely terrifying.”

She said she cared for 12 people, all of whom had COVID-19, on her own.

“One of my first interactions was with two ladies who shared a room … [they] literally broke down into tears, and reached for me and just said, ‘Thank God you’re here, we didn’t think anyone was coming,'” Bernhard said.

She said she didn’t catch the virus and only one of the 12 residents she cared for died.

Unions want more support for nurses

Michael Hurley, president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said the survey shows RPNs want four things:

  • The right to bargain for their wages.
  • More mental health support.
  • Pay during self-isolation.
  • Full access to personal protective equipment.

CBC News is seeking comment from the Ministry of Health.

Last spring, Premier Doug Ford announced a pandemic pay premium to recognize essential workers’ sacrifices. It included a $4 hourly raise over four months and a monthly bonus of $250 if they worked 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.

In 2019, he also introduced Bill 124 which caps public sector wage increases to one per cent a year.

LINK: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/hamilton-nurses-1.6022042