The Canadian Union of Public Employees says healthcare workers across the province need many additional supports as they continue to serve on the front-lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their new study, Sacrificed: Ontario Healthcare Workers in the Time of COVID-19, highlights a number of systemic weaknesses in Ontario’s healthcare system, including staff shortages, the inability to speak out about conditions, a lack of protective equipment and limited access to mental health supports.

“The knowledge that these workers know that they are at increased risk of infection due to lack of protection which resulted in anger, frustration and a sense of violation that may have long-lasting implications,” says co-author Dr. James Brophy.

The researchers warn that given intrinsic links between working conditions and patient care, the ongoing stress and burnout among healthcare workers is a cause of concern for all Ontarians.

“We all need to pay attention to the pleas of health care workers during this frightening time. Not only does their well-being matter, we need to realize that if they are not kept safe and well, they can’t properly care for their patients and residents,” says co-author Dr. Margaret Keith.

Part of the study was to contact 10 healthcare workers in Ontario who were asked to describe the conditions they’ve been working under throughout the pandemic. Many responses included feelings of anxiety, stress, anger and fear.

“She’s physically okay now, but mentally, I don’t think she’ll ever be the same. And she’s a young nurse starting out. I hope she will be able to one day tell her story, but she’s not there yet.”

“I’ve come home and cried many times. I’m stressed out. I can’t sleep at night. There’s a lot of us having trouble sleeping. I try to talk about it to my husband and he says, ‘You need to decompress, and you need to stop talking about work.’ But I say, ‘Work is such a big thing for me right now; I need people to know.”

“When we had our first patient who was COVID positive, unfortunately the test was done later than it should have been done and the staff that were providing care had been exposed. We had quite a few of them that had to go off work. About ten of them. Some are still dealing with ongoing medical conditions related to COVID.”

“There’s definitely extra stress and some days, you just break down and start crying, because it can be a tough day, or you are afraid that the virus is going to infect you or your co-workers or the residents. Our workload is crazy, and the girls are just running on the floor to keep up.”

“We have lost about 100 staff who have either taken a leave of absence because of fear or have taken a leave to go work at other jobs. We have had a few who have taken early retirement … . When I leave this interview, I’m heading into work and I’m going to work forty-four out of the next sixty hours.”

“It has gotten to the point that I don’t want to tell anybody I’m a nurse. And I don’t really blame them because, if I were in their shoes, I’d be thinking, ‘Oh my god, she’s a nurse. Where does she work?’ I was very proud of my profession. I’m very proud that I’m a CUPE member. Right now, I don’t want to tell anybody what I do.”

3,000 CUPE members were also polled as part of the study. Roughly 91 per cent of them said they felt the ‘government had abandoned them. Sixteen Ontario healthcare workers have died and 9,554 have contracted Covid-19 at work, according to government statistics.

The study was a collaboration between CUPE and the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, as well as the University of Windsor.

For more information:
Long-term care staffing shortages urgent, study