British Columbia

'Burnt out' B.C. nurses rally at legislature over staffing shortages

About 300 nurses from across the province rallied in front of the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday, demanding action on staffing shortages and patient safety.

Protest comes as nurses' union prepares to negotiate a new contract

Hundreds of nurses rallied outside the provincial legislature in Victoria, B.C., on May 10, 2022. (CHEK News)

About 300 nurses from across the province rallied in front of the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday, demanding action on staffing shortages and patient safety.

The protest was organized by the B.C. Nurses' Union, which is asking for better working conditions ahead of contract negotiations later this year.

Union president Aman Grewal said nurses everywhere are stretched thin after two years of the pandemic.

"It's taking a toll on them — physically, mentally. They are just getting burnt out, they are getting called in on their days off, they are having to extend their shifts," Grewal said.

Vancouver nurse Kyra Philbert says it's not just the extra and long shifts that are burning out nurses, it's the abuse they often face from patients. 

"You have somebody come in who is in a pain crisis, and they're swearing at you and punching at you," says Philbert, who works in hospital emergency rooms. "They think that because they're in pain they're entitled to call you derogatory names, make threats."

The nurses' current contract with the province ended on March 31, and the union says negotiations will begin for the next after a bargaining conference in October.

In the meantime, Grewal said she'd like to see the B.C. government address nursing shortages by providing more funding for bridging programs that allow licensed practical nurses to become registered nurses.

She added that there are not enough programs for the retention and recruitment of nurses.

Experienced nurses leaving profession

Katrina Plamondon, a nursing professor at UBC Okanagan, says experienced nurses in a variety of clinical settings are leaving the profession altogether.

Nurses are dealing with grief, loss and trauma on a daily basis, she said, and some aren't able to work more than two days in a row because their work is just too sad — they're witnessing death and are unable to care for all their patients in the current climate. 

"If experienced nurses are feeling that weight and burden, new nurses are feeling that weight and burden."

Plamondon said the problem stems from budget cuts and short-term planning by elected officials in previous years. 

"They are placing additional strain on a system that has been set up around ineffective ideas of efficiency," she said. 

"Accountabilities are focused on avoiding bad publicity and election cycles." 

In Question Period at the legislature on Tuesday, the opposition Liberals pressed Health Minister Adrian Dix on what the government is doing to address the shortage of nurses.

Kelowna-Mission MLA Renee Merrifield called on the government to make a change, saying the nursing shortage is only going to get worse.

"Nurses tell us their burnout has reached levels never before seen," she said. 

Health critic Shirley Bond said she too was hearing stories of "anger, frustration, heartbreak" from nurses, and accused Dix of "empty rhetoric" on the issue.

Dix responded to say that COVID-19 has created unusual pressures on staffing in health care.

"In the past week, for example, we had a level of absence in the system largely due to COVID-19 that was almost twice the ordinary level, including last year," he said.

The Ministry of Health recently announced $12 million in funding to streamline the process for internationally educated nurses to become registered in B.C.

With files from Meera Bains, The Early Edition and Daybreak South