Staff shortage spreads across Hay River health, social services

Last modified: January 25, 2023 at 6:29am

The Hay River health authority says a shortage of staff has now spread beyond nursing to affect many of its programs, but some efforts to address that are succeeding.

Health authority chief executive Erin Griffiths said issues range from being unable to hire an occupational therapist for two years through to having to close a cafeteria last week.

The health authority has a 66-percent vacancy rate for public health nurses, a 33-percent vacancy rate for mental health support workers, and a 25-percent vacancy rate for registered nurses and its social services team, Griffiths told town councillors on Monday.


“It’s no longer just the nursing staff that you see in the press all the time. It covers a lot of our programs, areas and services,” Griffiths said, “and it also impacts our front-line staff and our support services, which are the foundation of our organization.”

The problem is nationwide: health authorities across Canada and beyond are in a battle to find and attract workers.

Griffiths said that while Hay River and the broader NWT health authority are pouring resources into recruitment and retention, that work is getting harder.

“A lot of effort is going in. We are interviewing, we are recruiting. It just doesn’t seem to be happening fast enough,” she said.

“It’s hard to get the eye of the new professional out there because they have so many choices nationally.”


Hay River’s health authority interviewed 34 people in the past quarter, Griffiths said. Of those, a quarter declined the health authority’s offer for reasons such as not wishing to relocate their family or feeling the community did not reflect their personal interests.

Others are taking offers from Hay River and going “shopping nationally for other job offers, which is new for us,” Griffiths continued.

Asked how the town and its residents could help, she urged people to learn how to “sell our community” to prospective employees.

“These folks are all very independent, looking for different things,” she said. “I know the ski club is something that’s worked amazingly in the past. Our river has sold people in the past as well. So we really have to sell our community.


“Even if folks are coming up for three months, six months a year, I think that’s fabulous. Let’s have them come up with their friends and have them come work for us, even if it’s temporary. I think that’s a really huge piece.

“Another huge piece that we’re missing is housing. Housing is a real pressure. We do have locum housing in our community, based on our budget every year, but it’s not enough to continue a full-time medical staff. So housing is a real issue for those folks looking to stay in the long term.”

Burnout and retirement

Griffiths gave some examples of success in the health authority’s bid to hire more people.

She praised the health authority’s human resources team for its work to minimize the delay between a candidate accepting a job offer and beginning their first day. The average for that turnaround time is 35 days, she said, “which is phenomenal.”

The health authority has “a consistent complement of nurse practitioners,” Griffiths said, while physician coverage is fluctuating from one to four people depending on locum availability.

“There are some gaps right now where we have zero physicians,” she said, looking ahead. “We’re still trying to recruit for those positions with our territorial partners and on our own.”

More broadly, burnout of existing staff covering for vacancies and retirement are issues looming ahead.

“Those who are left still working are burning out,” Griffiths said. “To keep morale up is really tough when you are a part of a team that’s 60-percent vacant or 33-percent vacant, especially in healthcare. It’s incredibly busy.

“And we are going into a big group of retirees. Over the last couple of years and the next three years, we have a number of retirees coming down.”

Meanwhile, collective bargaining between Hay River’s health authority and the Union of Northern Workers continues this week.

This is the fourth round of bargaining to replace a collective agreement that expired almost two years ago.