The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the foundations of the nursing profession, driving some exhausted nurses away and pushing others to seek change, including at the ballot box.
Some of those reverberations are being felt in the first provincial election since the pandemic began in 2020.
Across Ontario, more registered nurses are running as candidates this year than in past elections — one sign of the rise of nurses as a political force in the province.
That is long overdue, said Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.
“We need to be in the legislature and in politics in general,” she said. “That is what nursing needs and that is what the public needs.”
The provincial election comes at a time when nurses are exhausted and leaving the profession. The nurses’ association released results of a survey this week that found more than 75 per cent of nurses are burnt out, 69 per cent say they will leave their current position in five years and 42 per cent of them would leave the profession altogether.
Some nurses have responded to their pandemic experiences by becoming more vocal about what they want to see change and making their voices heard during the campaign.
“We are seeing more and more people showing up for rallies and getting involved,” said Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association, another group which is pushing for more funding for health care in general and nurses specifically, including repealing Bill 124, which caps wage increases for most public sector workers in Ontario at one per cent annually.
“People are becoming politically more outspoken. They are paying attention,” Hoy said.
Tyler Watt, a 31-year-old front-line nurse at Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa, is among the registered nurses taking the step into politics as the Liberal candidate in the long-time Conservative riding of Nepean.
The transition from nursing, he said, is a logical step — especially now.
“I think that nurses get into this profession because they want to help people. As nurses, we are taught to be advocates for our patients and families. This seems like a very natural next step.”
Watt is one of seven registered nurses — representing all major parties — running as candidates in the provincial election. Grinspun said that is about double the number in recent elections and it comes at a time when many nurses are becoming more vocal about the need for change in health care.
Watt acknowledges he has an uphill battle running against incumbent Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod, but he said his reception while knocking on doors has been positive, in part because he is a nurse and health care is a key issue for most voters.
“A benefit of being a nurse is people know how difficult it has been. They are hopeful when they see a front-line nurse who wants to make some positive change to the health-care system.”
The pandemic gave Watt an extra push to want to get involved in politics.
“It made me realize how important it is. We need a nurse’s lens at Queen’s Park.”
He has already made a contribution to the party’s platform — which includes mandating mental health support for health-care workers and making sure they are paid more when working short-staffed.
Fiona Jager, a registered nurse and Green Party candidate in the provincial riding of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, said nurses have felt so pushed by the pandemic and gaps in the system that they are becoming increasingly vocal.
“I do think that has influenced the number of nurses involved in politics at this point in time.”
Jager, who teaches nursing at St. Lawrence College in Brockville, said her interest in politics is a logical extension of trying to solve problems for her clients when she worked in outpatient mental health.
She increasingly saw her clients’ problems with housing, entrenched poverty and stigma were also policy problems.
She said nurses have not traditionally been involved enough in policy and decision-making, at any political or organizational level, even though they are “uniquely positioned to feel the effects of policy failures, both in their own working lives and in the lives of patients.”
The lack of nurses’ voices in policy-making partly reflects the fact that it is a female-dominated profession, she believes. Like others, Jager thinks the pandemic has made many nurses more vocal.
Jager said the pandemic illustrated what happens when nurses’ voices are not heard. Many were given double workloads, and others were deployed to new areas where they were less experienced and less comfortable, resulting in burnout and an exodus from the profession.
“Nurses want to be nurses, but they are leaving the profession,” said Jager.
Grinspun, meanwhile, said the pandemic has motivated many nurses.
“For nurses, one of the big solutions is to create change, not only in the workplace but to be more engaged and to be heard in decision making.”
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