The New Brunswick Nurses Union is looking to find ways to cut the number of sick days taken by their members by 20 per cent.
New Brunswick nurses have the highest rate of absenteeism in Canada at 10.1 per cent, which is nearly double the lowest rate of 5.5 per cent, which is found in Saskatchewan.
In 2011, on average, registered nurses in New Brunswick took 13.23 sick days. In 2012, those sick days were equivalent to 250 full-time nursing positions.
Marilyn Quinn, the president of the nurses union, said she wants to find a way to deal with the number of sick days taken by her members before the situation gets any worse.
"Are there things that we could change in the workplace that would be more supportive that might reduce injuries and generally add to the overall health?" Quinn said.
The union, the Department of Health and the province’s two health authorities have set up a committee that has been given the task of finding ways to trim the number of sick days by 20 per cent over the next two years.
Finance Minister Blaine Higgs announced a program in this year’s budget to reduce the absenteeism rate in the public service by 20 per cent by March 31, 2015.
The lower absenteeism rate would save taxpayers $20 million, according to the finance minster.
‘Increases the risk of errors’
Maria Richard works at the province's busiest public health clinic in Moncton and she said the impact of the high absenteeism rate is felt by front-line workers.
For each nurse who calls in sick, Richard said, the stress level of those nurses still at work can become overwhelming.
"When I arrived [back]
from vacation they told me that day there were seven sick calls. Public health nurses don't get replaced, it's not like in the hospital," she said.
When nurses are not replaced, Richard said it adds to an already busy workload.
"You're almost flying from the seat of your pants here, trying to make sure everything gets done," she said.
"Well it increases the risk of errors and also the more stress, at one point if you're stressed so much, something's going to have to give."
That stress created by the extra work can then compound the absenteeism problem because it often leads to other nurses who then call in sick.
The union president said there are additional reasons that could cause nurses to call in sick.
"Neck and shoulder injuries, just from the kind of work nurses are doing. We see lots of stress and burnout because of the intensity that they're working at, 100 per cent of the time," Quinn said.
Quinn said the issue of absenteeism is more complex than simply adding new nurses to the system.
"Having the right number of people to work with is important. But if we're only going to put them in the system to become sick and go out injured, then that won't help us in the long term," she said.