Local PSWs, exhausted from long hours and low pay, say they're burned out

Understaffing and burnout among personal support workers (PSWs) in the Hamilton area started well before the pandemic, but has been exacerbated by its demands. Many also feel there's a lack of respect for the profession.

Issues started well before the pandemic, but have been exacerbated by its demands

Personal support workers say their workplaces were plagued by understaffing and burnout before COVID-19, but the pandemic has made things worse. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

For one personal support worker at a nursing home in Ontario's Norfolk County, each day is a blur. There should be at least six PSWs on each floor where she works, but many days, there are only three or four.

"We are always short-staffed … It means the residents don't get the proper care they deserve," said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. "You're rushing through to get them up for breakfast, up for lunch… You are so busy and you're running off your feet all day. By the end of the day, I have nothing left. 

"It's heartbreaking because they're [like] your family, and you'd never want to come home and do that to your family."

PSWs are burned out from intense physical work in understaffed units — a problem that started well before the pandemic, but has been exacerbated by its demands, say two local PSWs who spoke with CBC Hamilton.

It's a problem that has serious consequences for the people they care for and the workers themselves, says Vivian Stamatopoulos, a long-term care advocate and researcher who teaches at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa.

"There's been neglect in this system for decades and it is progressively getting worse," she said, noting 13 PSWs have died in Ontario during the pandemic. "Who wants to work in a position where you can't win? 

"These workers went through hell during the first and second waves." Then many of them said, "'To hell with it, I'm working at Starbucks.'"

No luck complaining to management

The Norfolk PSW, who works in a publicly owned facility, says she's expressed her concerns about the working environment to management, with no luck.

"If we have a complaint about something, we're always being shipped to the next person," she said. "We don't have the support we need from our nursing staff, and from management, we don't have the support we deserve… It's almost the norm now where you know when you walk in, it's going to be [awful]. You shouldn't have to feel that way."

At age 39, she said, the stress on her body from doing more than her share of work is catching up to the mental and emotional stress she deals with daily.

"You're constantly bending, rolling, lifting, pushing heavy wheelchairs," she said, adding, "A lot of people around the 10-year mark seem to change careers."

Hospital PSWs also facing burnout

Jen Cuthbert, a PSW at Brantford General Hospital, said her colleagues in the hospital system are feeling the stress of low staffing levels.

"Burnout is huge," she said. "We already started out [before COVID] with a shortage of staff."

On the mid-July day when she spoke with CBC Hamilton, Cuthbert had just finished working weekend shifts where her team was short two staff members. 

"You're starting with the bare minimum, and as soon as you have a sick call, you're bailing water," she said, noting at night on her floor, there's only one PSW on shift for 25 rehab patients. "Lately, it's just been wild at night… Our facility has started hiring clinical aides, which are PSW and nursing students who are not accredited yet... But we're still short."

LTC residents get about 2½ hours of care per day

Stamatopoulos said that because of chronic understaffing, long-term care residents in Ontario get an average of about 2.5 hours of help per day, while experts in the field recommend between five and seven hours. The Ontario government has promised to implement a four-hour daily care standard over several years, but Stamatopoulos says it should happen right away in order to force homes to hire more people.

As a community, you always are 'just' a PSW. I had so many family members tell me that several times in the past couple weeks. It's a lack of respect.- Jen Cuthbert

A provincial study released last summer reported 50 per cent of PSWs leave health care within five years, and 43 per cent leave long-term care because of burnout from "working short."

The province recently launched an initiative to train up to 8,200 new PSWs, but Stamatopoulos said it's unlikely they will stay in the job long without more systemic changes.

Cuthbert isn't surprised people are leaving, and said part of the reason is a lack of respect of the work done by PSWs, both in some workplaces and society as a whole. 

'We're the cockroaches of health care'

"We're the cockroaches of health care… Or ants, or aphids even," she said. "We are seen as uneducated, sometimes lazy… not very dedicated and not open to ideas or science.

"As a community, you always are 'just' a PSW. I had so many family members tell me that several times in the past couple weeks. It's a lack of respect."

Cuthbert and the Norfolk worker both say they see that lack of respect in the recent public discussions about whether PSWs should be forced to get vaccinated. Both are vaccinated themselves, but said many peers feel strongly that vaccination is a personal choice, and could take forced vaccination as the final straw that pushes them out of the industry.

"We're not paid exactly well," says Cuthbert. "The amount of risk in our job is relatively high. I feel it does infringe on our rights because they are now taking away a choice."

Vaccines still controversial topic among PSWs

The Norfolk worker, who believes fewer than half of her colleagues are vaccinated, said it can be hard to talk about it at work.

"We try not to talk about it too much because it just gets everyone worked up," she said. "Some say it's their personal choice. They don't get the flu shot, so why would they get this? Others say it came too fast and they don't trust it. Others don't want it because they just don't want it … If I didn't work where I work, I probably wouldn't have been vaccinated."

Provincewide, vaccination rates among PSWs have seen a significant increase in recent weeks. As of Monday, 93 per cent of long-term care home staff had received their first dose, with approximately 88 per cent having two, according to the Ministry of Long-Term Care. On May 31, only 66 per cent had two doses, while 89 per cent had one shot.

Ian da Silva, director of operations for the Ontario PSW Association, said the remaining hesitancy and longstanding burnout may be linked.

"You're talking about an extremely overworked workforce that may have a few minutes a day to watch the news," he said. "Where are they getting their information from?"