A staff shortage in the Prince Edward Island nursing sector is making it difficult for those picking up the slack, the province's Nurses Union said.

Mona O'Shea, president of the union, said while the number of vacancies has slowly increased over the past few years, this summer has been the worst. The vacancy number currently sits at 78, 10 of which are temporary positions.

"You have to rely then on your part-time people, your casual people, and then even your full-time people to put in a full complimented staff during the rotation," O'Shea told CBC.

She said this quickly becomes a problem as staff becomes over-worked, gets burnt out and experiences career dissatisfaction.

The staff shortages are appearing most commonly in areas like long-term care, dialysis, and mental health and addictions.

No room for vacation

But vacancies do not just lead to general frustrations, O'Shea said. It's interfering with the nurses who are working in the system getting adequate vacation time.

Every nurse across the province is eligible for two weeks of vacation time between June 15 and Sept. 15., but not everyone is getting it.

Mona O'Shea

The president of the nurses union is calling on the government to think outside the box to fill the 78 vacancies in Health P.E.I.'s system. (CBC)

"Right now we have a group of individuals … who actually are receiving two days out of two weeks," she said.

The union has supported a number of grievances the nurses have filed with their employers.

Health PEI 'will continue to work with the unions to support nurses'

Health PEI's chief of nursing Marion Dowling said managers and directors are supporting nursing staff to ensure they receive vacation times whenever possible this summer. This is done according to the collective agreements and based on operational requirements, ensuring staff mix and experience levels support the patients' needs.

'They'll come to work with a smile on their face and continue to do the care that is necessary for their patients and clients.' - Mona O'Shea, P.E.I. Nurses Union

"We will continue to work with the unions to support nurses working together with managers and directors to allow staff to receive vacation leave this summer while balancing the needs of patients requiring care from these professional staff," Dowling said.

In the meantime, O'Shea said nurses have been forced to shuffle their schedules to make do.

"What the nurses will do is come together as a group and start to trade off their shifts," O'Shea said.

"[Then] they'll come to work with a smile on their face and continue to do the care that is necessary for their patients and clients."

Think outside the box

O'Shea said employers need to start looking at exactly why these staff shortages continue to happen.

'The government for sure needs to think outside the box.' - Mona O'Shea, P.E.I. Nurses Union

A lack of recruiting nursing graduates, as well as having a larger population of nurses retiring are problems that need to be tied together, she said.

"The government for sure needs to think outside the box," she said.

"There are recruitment officers at every school of nursing across this country, and there are opportunities for nurses from every school to go where they'd like to go."

Seeking more full-time positions

The P.E.I. government's nursing strategy is one O'Shea hopes to see used effectively.

The province said in April its priorities include optimizing care, increasing the ratio of full-time to part-time nursing positions to 60:40 from 51:49, recruiting more new graduate nurses and launching the New Graduate Employment Guarantee Program.

That graduate program will seek to hire 20 new grads each year, on top of the 18 who are hired each year through a sponsorship program the province already offers, O'Shea said.

Casual work 'not going to keep a registered nurse here'

Under the NGEG, all nursing graduates who are residents of P.E.I. were offered employment, Dowling said. Graduates from out of province were also offered employment with Health P.E.I, for a total of 29 new registered nurses being offered a job.

Still, O'Shea feels that number could be increased as the number of nursing graduates climbs closer to about 70 per year.

"They may have been offered casual work [after graduation], but that's not going to keep a registered nurse here in P.E.I. who has a student loan that needs to be paid back."

Ultimately, O'Shea hopes the government will begin asking why there is such a turnover of staff, why they are leaving their jobs, and perform exit reviews to get those answers.

"Communication is key and you need to have transparency for sure," she said.

"If you don't have a happy employee, then job [satisfaction] isn't great either."

With files from Compass