Nursing shortages create burnout, more vacancies, Winnipeg health-care workers say

As of last week, 32 of 109 nursing positions at the St. Boniface ER were unfilled — a vacancy rate of nearly 30 per cent, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says. That's up from a 16.5 per cent vacancy rate in late December.

St. Boniface Hospital emergency department has a nursing vacancy rate of nearly 30%

The St. Boniface Hospital emergency room has struggled with nurse vacancy rates since before the pandemic, this week vacancy rates jumped to nearly 30 per cent. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

A former emergency room nurse says chronic staffing shortages at Winnipeg hospitals have created an unsustainable workload for nurses, and caused many to leave the department — or leave the profession entirely.

"Our department is hemorrhaging staff," said Kristin Gebhardt, who until this week worked as a triage nurse at St. Boniface Hospital.

"It's our senior qualified nurses that we really need that are leaving, which causes huge holes and gaps in our schedules that we are filling."

Remaining workers often have to take on double shifts, she said.

"We're exhausted, and the whole shift — sometimes, you know, 16 hours — we're just running at 100 per cent of our capacity."

The lack of nurses and support staff becomes critical when hospital beds are full, and the ER backs up because there's nowhere to put new patients, said Gebhardt, who has now taken a nursing position in another area of care.

"We would have stretchers just lining our hallway outside of our triage with patients."

The WRHA says the staffing shortage has increased in part beacuse several nurses left to join the critical care program as a result of increased demand for critical care staffing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Gebhardt said there often wasn't enough staff to provide water to people waiting, or even help them to a bathroom.

"We were seeing wait times of over 10 hours for patients to be able to get a treatment spot," she said. "If that was my family member, I would just be furious."

Gebhardt said situations like that sometimes went on for several days, and she and other nurses often feared their licences could be in jeopardy.

"We know that that could lead to disastrous situations, and unfortunately, we don't have control over that. So it's very distressing."

Nearly 30% of jobs unfilled

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said as of last week, 32 of 109 nursing positions at the St. Boniface ER were unfilled — a vacancy rate of nearly 30 per cent.

That's up from a 16.5 per cent vacancy rate in late December, according to information from the health authority.

"However, several nurses from St. Boniface emergency have left since then, including some who are providing support to the critical care program as a result of increased demand" during the COVID-19 pandemic, spokesperson Paul Turenne said in an email.

The health authority says agency nurses and overtime are being used to make up for staffing shortages, but Gebhardt said even with those measures, the staffing situation is unsustainable.

A government spokesperson said provincial Health Minister Heather Stefanson was not available to comment, but said in a statement the pandemic has "created significant challenges" in acute health-care across Canada.

The provincial government is working to address that problem, "including recruitment and retention of staff and addressing bottlenecks in patient flow," the spokesperson's statement said.

The issue of critical staff shortages in the St. Boniface emergency room was raised by the provincial Liberal Party earlier this week.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont brought forward concerns raised by Gebhardt and other health-care workers at the hospital, and called on the provincial government to provide "relief and resources" to staff there.

'We are all interconnected,' doctor says

A Winnipeg emergency room doctor — who CBC has agreed not to name due to concern speaking out could jeopardize his employment — says the issue of nursing shortages affects the entire health-care system.

"When we don't have nurses we have to close beds. When we close beds we can't get people in," the doctor said.

"We are all interconnected, completely and unequivocally, in the emergency department. If there's no team, there's no function."

The doctor said the issue existed long before the pandemic, but has been made worse because of the added stresses and anxieties it's created. 

Those pressures, on top of mandated overtime and the void created when skilled nurses leave, have resulted in an intolerable work environment, the doctor said, so he's not surprised more and more nurses are leaving.

"[Nurses] are getting destroyed. This is annihilating everybody's energy and spirit and empathy, and just … ability to do their job at a high level."

ERs still safe, nurse says

Gebhardt stressed that she does not want people to think it's unsafe to go to the ER. Patients will still get the care they need, she said.

"I do want the public to know that there are people working in the departments who have their family members' absolute best interests at heart, and that we are working to advocate for them." 

At the same time, she wants people to know what nurses are facing, and that staffing isn't meeting standards.

Gebhardt said it's been hard over the course of the pandemic to hear government officials talk about how valuable front-line health-care workers are.

"Listening to the praise and the thank yous from the government ... it's just really hard to listen to when you know that's not the way that you're being treated."

With files from Marianne Klowak