A troubling state of affairs

If the health workforce was a patient, it would be in critical condition. The public, especially those who are more active users of the healthcare system, seem to get it.

By Ivy Lynn Bourgeault

Yet new results of a nation-wide survey by the University of Ottawa, conducted among members of an Angus Reid Forum (March 4-8, 2022) paint a troubling picture of how Canadians feel about the wellbeing of our health care workers. 

Overall, nine out of 10 Canadians (87 per cent) say that they are concerned about the mental health of health care workers. This level of concern is even higher than the rating we give our own mental and physical health which approximately 54% of us say has worsened since March 2020.

Simply put, after two years of pandemic stress, people are not only concerned about how health workers are doing; they are also expressing concern about what this means for their access to, and quality of, health care. Overall, four out of five Canadians (79 per cent) say they are concerned about being able to access health care services because of the shortage of health workers. Slightly more (84 per cent) say they are also concerned about the quality of health care services.

The research showed that Canadian women are significantly more likely than men to express concern about the mental health of health workers, health access and quality of care. Perhaps this is because women are the primary caregivers for children, older adults and persons with disabilities providers and our provincial health systems are primarily women’s workforces, with 82 per cent of employees identifying as women, and growing, each year.

Regionally, Atlantic Canada (53 per cent) expressed the strongest concerns in the country.

If the public gets it, why doesn’t it seem to be the case for our politicians? The recent federal budget was like “crickets” about these growing concerns.

The pandemic has caused remarkable increases in rates of burnout and other mental health concerns which were already prevalent among nurses and doctors before the pandemic. Health and safety concerns and unsustainable workloads have been top of mind for years but recent 16+ hour days, cancelled vacations and forced redeployment have added to the challenge. 

And then there is the increasing violence caused by understaffing, inadequate security and increased patient numbers. Yes, even in medicine, women faced incivility, bullying and harassment. In a 2019 report, Violence Facing Health Care Workers in Canada, it was noted that health care workers are four times as likely to face workplace violence than any other profession, yet most goes unreported due to a culture of acceptance.

We are still waiting for the recommended public awareness campaign about the violence faced by health care workers, the pan-Canadian prevention framework and the Pan-Canadian Health Human Resources Strategy update to address staffing shortages and reflect the well-being of health care providers.

While health care workers care for us, they have not received the support and care they need from our governments through supportive public policy. As more than 65 health care organizations and 300 health workforce experts and leaders stated in a Call to Action, the time is now for the federal government to invest in better health workforce data and decision-making tools. 

Canada needs to make informed staffing decisions, optimize contributions of the available workforce and enable safer workplaces. There is both a sound economic argument for such an investment—with the health workforce making up eight per cent of Canada’s GDP, or over $175 billion in 2019—and a sound humanistic argument in support of worker well-being and the well-being of those of us who need their care.

The status quo must be seen for what it is—the most expensive and least tenable option going forward for all of us. 

Dr. Ivy Lynn Bourgeault is a Professor of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa and the Lead of the Canadian Health Workforce Network.

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