Ontario nursing groups fear mass exodus from workforce following pandemic burnout

A Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario survey found that between people planning to retire and those who said they're "very likely to leave" the profession following the pandemic, the workforce could see a 15.6 per cent loss within the next year.

RNAO survey shows 15 per cent of registered nurses could leave the profession

Denise Jeffrey has worked as a registered nurse for 19 years. She said she's feeling burnout following months of working in a hospital during a pandemic. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

No matter how much Denise Jeffery sleeps, she just can't seem to recover.

It's a sign of something she's come to know well over her 19 years as a registered nurse: she's about to hit the wall.

Jeffrey said burnout is a common topic of discussion, these days, among staff at the Toronto-area hospital where she works.

"We're feeling pretty overloaded, pretty overburdened," she explained.

"All of that in itself led to a lot of people deciding they don't want to stay, they want to leave the profession because they  no longer can cope in this epidemic."

Jeffery and her colleagues aren't alone. Results of a survey the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario shared in March found that between people planning to retire and those who said they're "very likely to leave" the profession following the pandemic, the workforce could see a 15.6 per cent loss within the next year.

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"It's a huge number," said Morgan Hoffarth, the organization's president, adding the typical loss rate is roughly 4.8 per cent.

"I think it would be devastating for our healthcare system. We are not prepared to lose 15 per cent of our registered nurses across the province."

Vicki McKenna, head of the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA), said her organization won't have data on expected losses for a few months, but she's also hearing from members who are considering quitting.

Staffing shortages were a problem before the pandemic and many nurses haven't had time off to recover between waves of COVID-19, according to the union president.

"I hear everyday they're exhausted, they're very frustrated, they feel disrespected in many cases, they just feel like there's no end in sight," she said.

"I'm very worried about what our nursing workforce is going to look like."

Vicki McKenna is the president of the Ontario Nurses' Association. (ONA/Twitter)

Nurses don't feel as though they're being heard by the government and, in some cases, their employers, said McKenna.

Ontario's Ministry of Health said its grateful for what health-care workers have done during the pandemic.

"The government has invested over $52 million to recruit, retain and support over 3,700 more frontline health care workers and caregivers through our COVID-19 Fall Preparedness Plan," read a statement emailed to CBC.

That plan includes $8 million for adding hundreds of nurses in areas of need across Ontario, it added.

The ministry said it's also providing $4 million each year for nursing education grants.

"These initiatives will increase nursing supply, providing respite for nurses and other health care professionals who have dedicated themselves to Ontario's ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic," read the statement.

Worries about a crater in care

But nursing groups worry it's not enough.

The average age for an RN in Ontario is 48 or 49, said McKenna, noting those are the nurses she's most-worried about losing.

Previous ONA surveys found nurses were considering continuing past the typical retirement age, but the president said that's not the case anymore.

"What I'm hearing now from nurses is 'You know what? I don't think I can do it anymore. I'm physically and emotionally exhausted."

Both nursing organizations said they're worried a staffing crater will remain after the pandemic recedes and how it could affect day-to-day care.

Hoffarth said Ontario urgently needs a health and human resources strategy to understand the issues facing its nursing workforce.

The workload needs to be lighter and mental health support must be provided for nurses struggling with burnout and "moral distress" from what they witnessed during the pandemic, she added.

Jeffrey, an RNAO member, said she's thought about leaving nursing, but after nearly two decades in the field, she doesn't feel chasing a new career is an option.

Instead, she's digging deep to find a way to keep working.

"Sometimes you just feel like calling in sick," she said.

"But you also look at the patients, you feel sorry for the nurses that have to work short, so you just gird yourself up and you go into work, even though you're not 100 per cent."