Canadian nurses are leaving in droves, worn down by 16 merciless months on the front lines of COVID-19


Nurses waiting outside the isolation room help the team working inside the isolation room of COVID-19 patient inside the intensive care unit of Humber River Hospital in Toronto on April 15. CARLOS OSORIO/REUTERS

[Excerpts] Nurse Lynnsie Gough tried to hang on, but in the end, the workload and sorrow of COVID-19 were more than she could bear.

“It just kept getting worse and worse,” Ms. Gough, 35, said of her job as an intensive-care nurse at a hospital in Ontario’s Niagara area. “I was having anxiety attacks where I would feel or be physically ill. I felt like I was going off to war or prison every day going into work.”

The only way to preserve her well-being, Ms. Gough concluded, was to quit.

Last month, she joined the growing ranks of Canadian nurses who are retiring early, switching to part-time schedules, departing to work for private staffing agencies or leaving the profession after 16 merciless months on the front lines of the pandemic.

The nursing shortage, a long-standing problem exacerbated by COVID-19, is now forcing some hospitals to close beds temporarily, scale back emergency-department hours over the summer and delay the full reopening of operating rooms. In Ontario, the government has begun offering bonuses as high as $75,000 to attract experienced, out-of-province critical-care nurses to strapped hospitals.

“We’ve seen nurses leave and leave and leave,” said Bernard Mathieu, an emergency physician at Montreal’s Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. “We see new, fresh nurses come in for orientation who decide not to stay because they see the quality of life they’re being offered is terrible.”

“Stratospheric” levels of mandatory overtime in Quebec hospitals have spurred nurses to leave for private staffing agencies that offer better pay and flexible schedules, he added.

Dr. Mathieu penned an open letter on behalf of his emergency-department colleagues this week begging Quebec’s health minister to help resolve the shortages. Dr. Mathieu wrote that half of all nursing posts and three-quarters of all respiratory-therapist jobs at Maisonneuve-Rosemont were vacant, compelling the hospital to temporarily close about a quarter of its acute-care beds.

Nunavut Health Minister Lorne Kusugak announced on Friday that two of the territory’s health centres would close temporarily in mid-August, while another five would close to all but emergency cases for a few weeks over the summer because a “nationwide shortage of health care staff [has] made the recruitment of nurses into the territory very difficult.”

Statistics Canada reported last month that in the first quarter of 2021, the health care and social-assistance sector saw a larger year-over-year increase in job vacancies than any other sector, led by postings for registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses, nurse’s aides or orderlies and licensed practical nurses.

Total vacancies in the sector rose to 98,700, an increase of nearly 40 per cent over the same time a year earlier. Nearly half the want ads for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses had gone unfilled for 90 days or more.