Nursing grads say pandemic experience pushing them out of Quebec hospitals

New nurses in Quebec say they were overworked and poorly treated in the public health-care system during the pandemic. They say many are leaving to take jobs in the private sector instead, where they can access better wages and more flexibility.

They're taking jobs in the private sector instead, where wages are better

Nurses in Quebec say working conditions, including mandatory overtime and refused vacations, have caused many people new to the profession to turn to the private sector for better pay and more flexible hours. (Shutterstock/Alliance Images)

Nursing students and recent graduates from Quebec nursing programs say working conditions in the public health-care system are driving them to the private sector, further exacerbating a shortage of nurses in provincial hospitals.

Audrey-Ann Bissonnette-Clermont, 27, graduated with a nursing degree a year ago. She started out in a Montreal emergency room but decided to shift careers and take a job in telemedicine.

"I got into the profession because I like people, I like to work with people,'' she said. "It's been hard to leave behind the face-to-face contact, but it's not difficult for my mental health.''

Bissonnette-Clermont says, unlike many nurses working in Quebec hospitals, she wasn't required to work a significant amount of overtime during the pandemic. But she says the past year was still draining.

Bissonnette-Clermont is the president of a student nursing group -- the Association étudiante en sciences infirmières du Québec. She says during the health crisis internships were cancelled, trainees were denied time off to study and aspiring nurses were put right to work.

"We were required to work full-time, we were asked to work mandatory overtime,'' she said.

New nurses already burned out

The experience is pushing students out of Quebec's public health-care system and toward private sector health-care providers. Some private placement agencies send nurses to the public system but offer better pay and flexible hours.

"What we see a lot is that new nurses are burned out, they stop working after five, six months,'' said Bissonnette-Clermont.

"I don't think it's normal to be burned out after a few months at your first job," she said. "That should set off alarm bells, a red flag, for managers, for the government.''

Beatrice Landry-Belleau, who finished a bachelor's degree in nursing in May 2021, says her pandemic experience reinforced her decision to work in front-line health care -- but not in a hospital setting.

Landry-Belleau says she loves nursing but wants to balance her work and personal life. Not being allowed to refuse overtime in a hospital setting worries her.

"It's very difficult to understand how you can go to work and not know when you can go back home,'' she said, adding she'd be happy to work in a neighbourhood, youth or refugee clinic or nurse-run cooperative.

Symptom of a bigger issue

Natalie Stake-Doucet, the president of the Quebec Nurses' Association, says what new nurses dealt with during the pandemic is a symptom of a larger problem: the way the profession is treated in the province.

"It's demoralizing for nursing students to go into [internships] and clinical rotations where they see forced overtime, violence, unbearable workloads and things like that,'' Stake-Doucet said.

"We've been called heroes...but that is not at all reflected in the way we're treated at work," she said.

Stake-Doucet says forced overtime and cancelled vacations are also driving nurses away.

"We're not nuns anymore," she said, "when you become a nurse you're not planning on living at the hospital, you still want a family, friends, a normal life and a job.''

Natalie Stake-Doucet, President of the Quebec Nurses' Association, says a labour shortage in the province's hospitals are due to more attractive working conditions offered in the private sector. She says Quebec needs to change the way it views the nursing profession. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Stake-Doucet said the problem in Quebec isn't a shortage; the problem is nurses don't want to work in the public system.

"There are actually enough nurses,'' she said. "We just are doing nothing to attract and retain them into the public health-care system.''

Stake-Doucet says the government is taking a coercive approach, limiting when placement agencies can provide nurses to the public sector.

She fears that strategy may push people out of the profession entirely. People hired away from regional health authorities aren't allowed to be placed by agencies on contracts with their former employers.

Rébecca Guénard-Chouinard, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christian Dubé, says the government has tried to limit the "exodus'' to the private sector.

"Our government reiterates its commitment to providing attractive working conditions for health-care workers in the public sector," she said.

Guénard-Chouinard says the government is working to keep nurses in the public system all across the province and continuing to reduce its use of placement agencies.

She says recent agreements in principle with nurse's unions will improve working conditions by reducing overtime, boosting staff and increasing salaries.