Nurses leaving jobs during pandemic: study

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Windsor nurses are so “burnt out and beaten down” by COVID-19 workloads and conspiracy theories that many are quitting the profession, according to an ongoing study.

A University of Windsor probe into the pandemic’s effects on local nurses reveal some have taken early retirement, switched jobs or gone on stress leave. It’s a trend that nursing organizations across Ontario and Canada are also noticing.

Dana Menard, a University of Windsor psychology professor and lead investigator on the study, said the recent results were “a lot more grim” than the response researchers received at the start of the pandemic.

“The participants were almost universally exhausted, burned out, frustrated, depressed,” she said. “They felt disposable. They felt expendable. And there was a lot less of that light at the end of the tunnel kind of hope that things would get better. There was a lot more concern about the variants. There was a lot of concern about vaccination rates not being has high as they need to be, and just a fear that they would never get back to doing their jobs the way they really wanted to.”

They’re worried about a fourth wave right now

The study began in 2020 with interviews of 36 registered nurses who live in Windsor and work in Ontario or Michigan. The research team, including psychology professor Kendall Soucie and nursing professors Jody Ralph and Laurie Freeman, recently did follow-up interviews with 19 of the nurses.

The study was funded through a $10,000 grant from University of Windsor and the WE-Spark Health Institute, a partnership involving the university, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, St. Clair College and Windsor Regional Hospital.

“Along with other healthcare organizations we agreed to promote to our nurses to voluntarily participate in the study,” said David Musyj, CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital. “We are glad a segment of nurses who work in both Ontario and the United States participated. We look forward to being shared detailed results and seeing if we can use for future planning.”

Windsor Regional officials wouldn’t comment further because they haven’t reviewed the study.

Citing ethics protocols, Menard would not comment on situations at specific hospitals.

While the study was focused on Windsor, the problems are the same system-wide, said Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

Nurses everywhere are stressed out, burned out and looking to get out.

“I fear that is going to be devastating to the workforce,” said McKenna. “I’m very worried about the future of the nursing workforce in Ontario. But it’s not just in Ontario. I’m hearing this from my colleagues across the country and in the States as well.”

“I’m hearing this from the ground everywhere, whether it be a large urban hospital like Windsor or a smaller community hospital.”

During the first round of interviews in May and June of 2020, nurses were hopeful that circumstances would improve and they’d get through it with support from their “work family.” A year later, the optimism had disappeared.

“There was a lot of resentment to go around,” said Menard. “There was definitely a lot of anger at people who felt this was a conspiracy, and anti-vaxxers. People told us they deleted their social media because they were tired of friends and family spouting nonsense and misinformation on Facebook or Twitter.”

There was also resentment from nurses who felt their efforts over the last year were not recognized by hospital management. Menard said they were bitter at losing perks like free parking while also being unable to take vacation.

Some nurses were irked at seeing travel nurses and new hires receive better pay.

“There were all these incentives for new hires but there was no retention money for people who had been there and dealing with this mess for a year,” said Menard. “So participants, I think, were quite angry.”

And while the number of COVID-19 cases has declined, the report found that nurses are facing the pressure of trying to handle the backlog of postponed elective and non-urgent procedures.

McKenna said there were already nurse shortages before the pandemic.

“It’s only gotten worse on the burnout side, absolutely,” she said. “But they’re physically and mentally, emotionally exhausted. They’re worried about the future. They’re worried about a fourth wave right now. And at the same time, I get emails and calls from nurses to say ‘I just don’t know I can continue,’ ‘I just don’t know if I have it in me.’”

McKenna said the dire situation has her “worried about the future.”

“Most nurses I know and speak with are dedicated,” she said. “They want to continue to work. But they are beginning to think about under what circumstances will they continue to practice. I think the government needs to pay attention and they need to sit down and do some really serious planning with us, and quickly. Otherwise the situation will only continue to spin out.”

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