WRHA head acknowledges 'valley of despair' for employees struggling with health-care changes

Real Cloutier, the head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, acknowledges that employees are mired in a "valley of despair" two years into a massive transformation of the province's health-care system.

'Change sucks' but is needed, Real Cloutier writes in letter to Winnipeg Regional Health Authority workers

It's natural that Winnipeg Regional Health Authority employees will experience a period of uncertainty and unhappiness as Manitoba goes through an overhaul of its health-care system, says CEO Réal Cloutier. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Réal Cloutier, the head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, says employees are mired in a "valley of despair" two years into a massive transformation of the province's health-care system.

And, he wrote in a letter to staff, it's important to admit when "change sucks."

Cloutier offered a more candid assessment of controversial health-care reform in Winnipeg in a weekly email to the health authority's roughly 28,000 staff, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News. 

He said officials should be discussing how the changes, which have seen emergency rooms closed and other facilities converted, will improve care and create a better workplace.

"While that's true and important to remember, I think it's time we talked [about] something else: and that's that — frankly — change sucks," Cloutier wrote.

'Uncertainty, disruption' in work

"Two years in, I know that this change has been hard on many of you. There's uncertainty, disruption to the way we work, where we work and who we work with. For many of you, long hours and added pressure is what you're dealing with every day," he said in the letter.

"I want you to know that I see all of it, and I take it seriously."

He also refers to the current feelings of workers about the overhaul as "the valley of despair" — a phrase used within change management circles that refers to the depression people feel before they begin to accept a major change.

Cloutier wrote in a letter to staff that changes in the health-care system will be worthwhile in the long run. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Using the phrase "valley of despair" in the subject line of his email was a catchy way to get people to read on, Cloutier said in an interview.

It's generated the most feedback of any of his dispatches to staff — which includes around 40 emails — most of which has been positive, he said.

"We have to acknowledge that we're going through a massive change, but we're doing it for the right reasons."

'Patronizing and insulting': MGEU

He said he intentionally wrote in plain English to speak to the health authority's employees in a relatable way. 

"I grew up in a working-class family. I've got lots of brothers and a sister, and we spoke this way growing up," Cloutier said.

"One of the things that I respect for the health-care professionals that I work with is that they appreciate when you can connect with them on a personal level — what's wrong with that?"

NDP Leader Wab Kinew interpreted the letter differently. He says it's a condemnation of the Progressive Conservative government's health-care reform plan and proof that employee morale is low.

"If their CEO is admitting in this letter that the premier's cuts to health care are causing them depression, then unfortunately they're likely to bring that to the bedside or to the workplace, and that's going to affect the patients."

Kinew doesn't imagine health-care workers will change their opinion going forward.

"It seems unlikely that closing more emergency rooms and laying off more staff is going to help people working in the WRHA feel better," he said.

In fall of 2017, the emergency room at Victoria General Hosptial was converted to an urgent care centre, and Misericordia Health Centre's urgent care became a community intravenous therapy clinic.

Later this year, Concordia Hospital's emergency room will close and the ER at Seven Oaks will be converted into an urgent care centre.

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, expects more hardships.

"It's refreshing to hear the WRHA finally admit that its cuts and reshuffling of services have been hard on health-care workers, and that the WRHA needs to do better," she said in a statement.

"But trivializing the very real frustrations of health-care workers with empty slogans like 'change is good' feels patronizing and insulting to the front-line people working so hard to care for patients."

Cloutier's message didn't satisfy the Manitoba Nurses Union either, whose members deal with mandatory overtime and an increased workload because of vacancies, said president Darlene Jackson.

"Telling nurses about the 'valley of despair' serves as a harsh reminder that their concerns are not being taken seriously, because further disruption is coming whether they like it or not."

'An amazing opportunity'

Cloutier argued in an interview with CBC News that a budget that grows year after year shouldn't be described as a funding cut. 

His letter says the overhaul will bring about a more efficient health-care system that works better for everyone.

"If we're cutting anything, it's the confusion and outdated ways of working that are holding us back," he writes.

"The truth is you are a part of making changes that will improve the care and outcomes of countless people and their families in Manitoba for generations to come. It's challenging, but it's an amazing opportunity for all of us."

He promised things will get better, for patients and for staff.

"We will look at what we've built together and see that this change is good," Cloutier wrote. 

Like Cloutier, Health Minister Cameron Friesen acknowledged the changes aren't always easy on front-line staff, but he said in an email that "Manitobans are beginning to see evidence that we are moving in the right direction."


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at