Toronto-area nurse says profession crumbling under weight of burnout

With Ontario's emergency rooms facing immense pressure, many nurses in the province are quitting, breaking down, or looking for other options, one registered nurse says.

Nurses are 'quitting, breaking down, or looking for other options,' Birgit Umaigba says

Three nurses, masked and wearing blue scrubs, walk in different directions through a hospital corridor.
Nurses in the emergency department at Scarborough General Hospital. Staffing shortages as a result of sickness, COVID-19 exposures and burnout are among the reasons behind the rising wait times in Ontario emergency rooms. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When Birgit Umaigba goes to work each day, she never knows what to expect.

As a registered nurse working in hospitals across the Greater Toronto Area, her job always carried a degree of unpredictability — but with the healthcare sector under immense strain, nurses now face unprecedented challenges fuelled by burnout, sick calls, and ever-mounting pressures, she says.

"Now … the only scene I can guarantee is chaos, and not going on my breaks most times," Umaigba said on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Friday.

"It's just hard. It's very difficult…. People are either quitting, breaking down, or looking for other options."

Patients in emergency rooms around Ontario are waiting record lengths of time to get admitted to hospital, and that's a situation that only appears to be getting worse, medical professionals say.

The trend is particularly worrisome for hospitals because it's happening despite a diminishing COVID-19 caseload, and because it comes at a time of year when the burden on emergency departments usually eases. 

LISTEN | Birgit Umaigba describes what it's like to be a nurse in Ontario right now:

Wait times surge in ERs

The latest statistics published by Ontario Health show that patients who came to an ER in April and were admitted to hospital spent on average 20 hours in the emergency department before getting a bed in a ward. 

That figure is the longest wait time Ontario has ever posted in April. It's 42 per cent higher than it was in April 2021, and only a fraction off the record-high 20.1-hour average wait time seen at the peak of the Omicron wave in January. 

While more recent wait time statistics are not publicly available, administrators and medical professionals with direct knowledge of the system say the situation in emergency rooms has not improved since April. 

While calls to end "hallway healthcare" are talking points brought up by political parties of all stripes, Umaigba sees the real thing all the time — from patients moaning in pain, to assisting with end-of-life care or inserting catheters in hospital hallways.

"It is a tragedy," she said. "There's little to no privacy, human dignity is taken for granted at that point, even though we try our best, but it's extremely challenging for everyone involved."

Birgit Umaigba is a registered nurse who specializes in critical care and emergency medicine. (CBC)

Often times, some emergency room areas are shut down because there aren't enough nurses to care for patients, she said. Two weeks ago, she worked a shift in a department with only six nurses where there is supposed to be at least 32.

"That was a complete disaster," she said.

Intense exhaustion

On a typical work day in 2022, nurses know they're likely walking in short five to 10 colleagues, with one nurse doing the work of two to three people. Sick calls are surging just so people can cope, she said.

"The exhaustion is just real," she said.

"This is why people are quitting."

Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, previously told CBC News that some emergency departments are operating without filling large numbers of vacant nursing positions, and the ratios of patients to staff are growing dramatically. 

"I don't think the people of Ontario really know what is going on in the emergency rooms," said Hoy, whose union represents 68,000 nurses and other health care professionals across the province. 

So what is to be done about the issue? As a nurse on the ground, Umaigba told CBC News that Bill 124, which caps wages for provincial employees including nurses, should be repealed, alongside the province providing more mental health resources for staff and increased strategization around recruitment and retention.

"People are going to show up if they feel valued. Unfortunately, we don't feel valued," she said.

"I think this is a long haul for the nursing profession. The future is bleak."

With files from Adam Carter and Mike Crawley