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Nurses' union president says 'unsustainable pressure' driving some from the profession

Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton, right, was one of five witnesses to appear at the legislature's standing committee on health on Tuesday. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton, right, was one of five witnesses to appear at the legislature's standing committee on health on Tuesday. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)

The president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union says "unsustainable pressure" is pushing people out of the profession and giving others second thoughts about joining in the first place.

Janet Hazelton was one of five witnesses at the legislature's standing committee on health on Tuesday to discuss labour shortages in the health-care system.

"Some would say we are the glue that holds the system together, and recently that glue is not as tight and as secure as we would like it to be," Hazelton told MLAs.

In her 40 years as a nurse, Hazelton said she's never seen the level of burnout nurses are experiencing. There is a 16.5 per cent vacancy rate, with 1,000 openings just in Nova Scotia Health. Hazelton said that's leading to hundreds of thousands of hours of overtime and nurses missing out on vacations.

"You need time off," she said. "You need to be with your families and with your loved ones and many, many are not getting that. A lot of our younger nurses don't get vacation. They just don't, and they can't. There's no ability to replace them. That's not sustainable."

Recruitment efforts affected

Nurses are also expressing concerns about increased violence in the workplace, said Hazelton. She said the over all situation is also affecting recruitment efforts in some cases. She said some seats in university training programs are going unfilled for the first time in recent memory.

"That says to me that the appeal of being a nurse is disappearing and that's because they're hearing what's going on and they're saying, 'I want no part of this."

Registered psychiatric nurses cannot practice in jurisdictions like the Maritimes where they are not regulated.
Registered psychiatric nurses cannot practice in jurisdictions like the Maritimes where they are not regulated.

'You need time off,' says Hazelton. (Have a nice day photo/Shutterstock )

There is a particular need for registered nurses and one idea Hazelton pitched was for the government to cover the education costs of a licensed practical nurse looking to upgrade.

More money could also be plugged into working conditions if the policy on agency nurses was revisited, she said.

The province spent $126 million on private nursing agencies to bolster staffing numbers in 2023-24 at hospitals and long-term care homes around Nova Scotia. Hazelton noted that the entire cost of a recent contract settlement for Nova Scotia nurses was $294 million.

Address staffing needs

Although the province announced a policy late last year that limits the amount of time someone can work in Nova Scotia as a travel nurse, Hazelton renewed her call for a provincial system that uses nurses employed by the province to address staffing needs.

"There is no reason why a nurse from Truro could not go and work in Parrsboro or Pugwash if they so choose," she said.

"If we are willing to spend millions on nursing care, these funds should be invested in improving the working conditions of our nurses and, by extension, the health-care services provided to Nova Scotians."

She's particularly concerned about the use of agency nurses in the long-term care system and the effect it has on establishing relationships with nursing home residents, especially those with dementia.

"The agency nurses don't know the residents. You know, they're in, they're out."

Hazelton said that Manitoba is in the process of launching its own provincial pool of travel nurses and Newfoundland and Labrador is expanding a program that until recently was only used in Labrador.

More talks expected

Craig Beaton, associate deputy minister for the Health Department and the Office of Heathcare Professionals Recruitment, said talks about a provincial travel nurse program have happened at the bargaining table and he expected those talks would continue.

"Allowing mobility to keep services open around the province will be a key feature and we'll be working collectively with partners like the unions to be able to see what we can do on that front," he told reporters.

Beaton said the government knows there continues to be strains on the system that affect the working conditions for people on the front lines.

Although efforts continue to try to address that, Beaton said it would take time before people start to notice the benefits of changes intended to improve patient access to care.

Hazelton said she knows a lot of work is happening to try to improve working conditions and recruitment, but she said more needs to happen and it needs to happen faster.

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