Nearly three quarters of Ontario’s registered practical nurses have reached a breaking point during the pandemic, with one in three reporting they are considering leaving the profession, a new survey suggests.
The report, titled “Wellness, workload and wages — How RPNs are personally coping amid the pandemic“ was conducted online by the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario (WePRN) in December.
WePRN spoke with 765 registered practical nurses for the report and included personal accounts.
WeRPN CEO Dianne Martin says she was not prepared for “just how significantly impacted nurses’ lives have been.”
“I slept underneath a desk,” one nurse recounted. “I couldn’t leave the nursing home because there were too many critical patients that needed my attention, and we had no staff,” she continued.
“I’ve had to be a caregiver, a nurse, housekeeper, family, friend, dietitian and even infection control lead.”
There are approximately 47,000 registered practical nurses in the province, the union’s website says. They require a college diploma to practise and generally work in long-term care facilities, retirement homes and hospitals. Unlike registered nurses, they do not work in emergency wards, intensive care units or other critical care situations.
According to the survey, 90 per cent of respondents reported an increase in workload since the beginning of the pandemic, with 83 per cent saying they felt their mental health has been adversely affected by their work.
67% say they don’t have adequate mental health support
The report revealed 67 per cent of those surveyed said they don’t have adequate mental health support to face the second wave of COVID-19.
They are experiencing “mortal distress,” says Martin, meaning “that they have felt they have not met the requirements of their job.”
While the association does provide some supports, Martin says more are needed.
“Nurses are going to need ongoing [counselling] to … process what they’ve been witness to and what they’ve been asked to do,” she said.
Martin says that includes witnessing final good-byes and supporting loved ones.
“I have held hands with those dying alone,” one nurse explains in the report. Another talks about facing similar tragedies while “keeping it together as a nurse and not breaking down.”
The City of Toronto has opened a 24-hour free mental health support service for children and youth, seniors, those with intersectional identities, and front-line workers who are struggling.
From April 27 to Jan. 9, the city says almost 110,500 people have either called, texted or sent an online message for support to access mental health services.
According to the survey, concerns about exposing loved ones to the novel coronavirus have led to 83 per cent of nurses reducing the time they spend with their immediate family.
One single mom described moving in with her parents to help care for her three-year-old daughter while she’s at work.
“It was devastating to us all,” the nurse explained.
“I stayed away until COVID testing was opened to anyone and I could be sure that I was not infected. But my daughter now suffers from separation anxiety and sleep issues.”
The survey also found 57 per cent reported experiencing financial stress.
Last spring, Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued an emergency order prohibiting employees from working at multiple long-term care facilities in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As a result, Martin says, some union members have seen their wages drop.
“You can imagine the devastation to the wages of nurses when they had to give up a chunk of their income just to continue to care for our elderly.”
“We need full time jobs. We need some sort of financial recognition that people had to give up their income to do to try to keep the seniors safe.”
Ontario’s Ministry of Health was not able to respond in time for publication of this story.