Isis Manning describes her time as a nurse during the pandemic as “emotionally triggering.”
People were stressed – surgeries were cancelled, concerned and angry family members were constantly calling and nurses were quitting.
“I was just trying to manage the chaos,” she says.
In a quarter century of nursing in Ontario, Ms. Manning has seen the nursing landscape change over time – from bad, to good and back again. When she began in 1996, she said a lot of nurses were being laid off and fleeing to the United States in search of work.
“There was a lot of unrest in the profession,” she said. But the pandemic brought a whole new kind of unrest. In the early days of the pandemic, she said the workload was unmanageable. “We weren’t having any visitors, we had increased acuity [the amount of time needed to care for patients], [the need for] increased skill sets and machinery that we had to know, and new treatments.”
Like many other nurses, Ms. Manning was also facing increased mental health challenges and patient abuse.
“It was pretty traumatizing,” she says. “You work 12-hour days, and then you come home and you never ever felt like you had done a good job, ever.”
Ms. Manning recalls treating a COVID-positive patient who pulled down their mask and coughed directly in her face. Family also played a role in the abuse and stress, getting angry with Ms. Manning over the phone because their family member’s health was deteriorating, blaming her for their condition.
“You couldn’t really sleep at night because you didn’t know what you were walking into the next day,” she says.
Adding to her stress was the aesthetics business she was trying to start on the side, focusing on cosmetic injections, skin care, laser hair removal, hair loss rejuvenation and sexual health and wellness.
Eventually, in late 2020, she knew she could not divide herself between her work, family and business venture any more. “It was really difficult to give up that guaranteed wage and wade into the unknown waters, but I also felt like I needed to delve into this extraordinary opportunity.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many nurses leave the profession because Canada does not systematically collect health care workforce data.
Statistics Canada estimates that 22,400 registered nurse positions are vacant, with nearly half (46.5 per cent) of vacancies for registered nurses and registered practical nurses staying open for 90 days or more, according to 2021 data.
Also missing, is hard data on what jobs nurses move to, but Jane, a software company that helps health care practitioners manage their businesses, has some insight.
They saw an uptick around the end of 2020 in people signing up for their service in the same area Ms. Manning moved to – medical aesthetics.
“We really wanted to know more of the stories of these practices and why they were choosing to partner with Jane,” said co-CEO and co-founder Alison Taylor. She said the trend accelerated with a 275 per cent increase in medical aesthetics companies signing up for Jane since the pandemic began, with just under 1,000 practices currently using the service.
Many of these individuals had previously been nurses and primary care physicians who were shifting gears to escape grim working conditions and pandemic burnout while still utilizing their skills.
Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), says while the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the nursing shortage, the shortage isn’t new.
She said retention is key to fixing the shortage. “We cannot let the experienced nurses that are 55-ish leave our system – we just cannot. Those [nurses] are the security blanket of patient care, and the security blanket of all the new nurses coming in.”
Keeping nurses in the profession is tough because working conditions need to be improved, she says.
According to a CFNU report on workplace violence, 54 per cent of Ontario nurses have experienced physical abuse, 85 per cent experienced verbal abuse, and 19 per cent have experienced sexual violence or abuse.
Also, according to Statistics Canada, 70 per cent of health care workers report that their mental health has worsened during the pandemic.
As for Ms. Manning, she feels confident in her choice.
“It’s been life changing for me,” she says. “If somebody has the opportunity to do something like this, then they should do it.”
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