Guest column: Canadians are rightly concerned about the mental health of healthcare workers

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By Ivy Lynn Bourgeault

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If the healthcare staff were a patient, they would be in critical condition. The public seems to understand.

New results from a national uOttawa survey of Angus Reid Forum members (March 4-8, 2022) paint a troubling picture of how we feel about healthcare workers.

Overall, nine in 10 Canadians (87%) say they are concerned about the mental health of healthcare workers. This level of concern is even higher than assessments of our own deteriorating mental and physical health.

When asked how things have changed since March 2020, 54% of Canadians say their own mental health has deteriorated, while 53% say their physical health and general well-being have deteriorated.

After two years of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are much more likely to express concern about the mental health of healthcare workers than to say that we have experienced worsening of our own health.

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People are not only concerned about how health workers are doing, they are also expressing concern about what this means for their access and the quality of health care.

Overall, four in five Canadians (79%) say they are worried about accessing health care services due to the shortage of health care workers. Slightly more (84%) say they are concerned about the quality of health services.

Women are much more likely than men to express concerns about the mental health of healthcare workers, access and quality of care. This may be because the healthcare system has become predominantly a female workforce, with 82% identifying as female and growing every year.

Regionally, half of Atlantic Canadians (53%) said they were very concerned about accessing health services due to labor shortages — by far the highest rate in the country.

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It is perhaps in this region that the importance of health care for provincial elections is most evident.

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

The pandemic has led to a remarkable increase in rates of burnout and other mental health problems – already prevalent among nurses and doctors before the pandemic – due to health and safety concerns and unsustainable workloads.

Healthcare workers faced over 16-hour days, canceled vacations and forced redeployment.

And then there is the violence.

We were warned before the pandemic of the increase in violence experienced by nurses in health care, caused by understaffing, inadequate security and increasing patient numbers.

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In its 2019 report, Violence Against Health Care Workers in Canada, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health noted that health care workers are four times more likely to experience workplace violence. than any other profession – but most go unreported due to a culture of acceptance.

Few of the report’s key recommendations have been implemented.

We are still awaiting the recommended awareness campaign on the violence faced by healthcare workers or the prevention framework. We are also still awaiting the much-needed update to the Pan-Canadian Health Human Resources Strategy to address staffing shortages and reflect the well-being of health care providers.

While healthcare workers care for us, they have not received the support and care they need from our governments through supportive public policies.

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As more than 65 healthcare organizations and 300 healthcare workforce experts and organizational leaders stated in an open call to action last year, now is the time for the federal government to take the lead in supporting provinces, regions, hospitals, health authorities and training programs. with investment in better health workforce data and decision-making tools.

Canada must make informed staffing decisions, optimize the contributions of the available workforce and enable safer workplaces.

Right now we are working in the dark.

There is both a strong economic case for such an investment – ​​with the health workforce accounting for 8% of Canada’s GDP or more than $175 billion in 2019 – and a strong humanistic case for health workers. healthcare workers.

The status quo should be seen for what it is – the most expensive and least sustainable option in the future.

Dr. Ivy Lynn Bourgeault is a professor of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa and responsible for the Canadian Health Human Resources Network.

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