Mental health | People worry about health workers

If the healthcare staff were a patient, they would be in critical condition. The population seems to have understood this.

Posted at 10:00 am

Ivy Lynn Bourgeault

Ivy Lynn Bourgeault
Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa and Executive Director of the Canadian Health Workforce Network

A national survey by the University of Ottawa, conducted March 4-8, 2022 among members of the Angus Reid Forum, paints a disturbing picture of our feelings about health professionals. Nine in ten (87%) say they are concerned about the mental health of health professionals.

This level of concern even surpasses Canadians about their own mental and physical health. When asked what has changed since March 2020, 54% say their mental health has deteriorated.

After two years of pandemic stress, we are therefore much more likely to be concerned about the mental health of health professionals than to say that our own health has deteriorated.

People don’t just care about health professionals; they are also concerned about the impact on their access to health services and on the quality of care. Four in five people (79%) say they fear their access to health services because of the staff shortage in this sector. And a slightly higher number of respondents (84%) say they are concerned about the quality of care.

Women are significantly more likely than men to be concerned about the mental health of health professionals, access to health services and the quality of care. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the health workforce is mainly made up of women. Indeed, more than three quarters of health professionals identify as women, and this proportion is increasing every year.

Regionally, half of those surveyed in Atlantic Canada (53%) strongly agree that they are concerned about their access to health services due to staff shortages, which is by far the highest percentage in the country. This may have to do with the prominent place of the health care theme during the provincial elections in this region.

On to the politicians

If the population understands the situation, that does not seem to be the case for politicians. The recent federal budget said nothing about these growing concerns.

During the pandemic, health and safety issues and an unsustainable workload have led to a dramatic increase in burnout and other mental health problems, which were previously common among nurses and doctors. Health workers have faced work days of more than 16 hours, holiday cancellations and forced relocations.

And that’s without counting the violence.

Even before the pandemic, we were warned that nurses were faced with increasing violence due to understaffing, inadequate security measures and increasing patient numbers, and that even women in medicine were subject to rudeness, intimidation and bullying.

In the 2019 report, “Violence experienced by health professionals in Canada”⁠1, the House of Commons Standing Health Committee noted that health professionals are four times more likely to experience workplace violence than people in other professions. Yet most cases of violence go unreported because of the culture of acceptance of violence.

Only some of the important recommendations of this report have been implemented. We are still waiting for the awareness campaign about violence experienced by health professionals and the pan-Canadian violence prevention framework. The same goes for the critical update to the Pan-Canadian Human Resources Strategy on Health, which should help address labor shortages and reflect the well-being of health professionals.

While health professionals care for us, the government fails to provide them with the support and care they need through supportive government policies.

As stated by more than 65 healthcare organizations and 300 experts and industry leaders in an advocacy petition launched last year, it is time for the federal government to take the lead in supporting counties, territories, regions, hospitals, health authorities and training program managers by investing in improved health workforce data and decision-making tools.

Canada needs to make informed workforce decisions, optimize the contribution of the available workforce, and improve workplace safety. Right now we are making blind decisions.

The arguments for investing in supporting health professionals are both economic – the healthcare workforce accounts for 8% of Canada’s GDP, or more than $175 billion in 2019 – and people.

We have to get to the obvious. The status quo is the most expensive and least defensible solution in the future.

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