A Northwest Territories MLA is calling for an independent investigation after several nurses raised concerns that resident staff and short-term locum staff are treated differently.
Last month, several nurses at Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital told Cabin Radio resident staff are required to use vacation time to self-isolate if they return from out-of-territory travel. Meanwhile, locum workers from elsewhere in Canada are able to work immediately after arriving in the NWT.
The nurses said unfair policies and mistreatment at the Yellowknife hospital are affecting morale, staff retention, and patient care.
Lesa Semmler, a longtime nurse who is now the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, said there have long been additional benefits for locum nurses across the NWT, which she believes have discouraged some from becoming permanent workers in the North.
In the Legislative Assembly on Thursday, Semmler noted how important nurses are to the NWT’s healthcare system.
“Nurses are essential. Our healthcare system absolutely could not function without them,” she said.
“It is unfortunate that, given how much nurses do, they are not treated the same.”
Semmler called on the territory’s health and social services authority to hire an independent third party to investigate nurses’ concerns and make the findings public. She said exit interviews should be a requirement for healthcare staff.
“The nurses are not going to bite the hand that feeds them,” she said. “The health authority needs to send out independent persons to hear from them so they can voice their concerns without feeling like they may get retribution for saying the truth.”
Health minister Julie Green – who previously said the health authority was working with the Union of Northern Workers to investigate and address nurses’ concerns – told Semmler information will be collected and reported in a way that can’t be attributed to any individual.
Green did not say, however, whether the investigation will be completed by an independent third party, nor whether the findings would be made public.
“I am very interested in hearing from the nurses. I can say that it is easier to retain a nurse than to find a nurse and get him or her to move here and take that job,” the minister said, noting the health and social services authority has an overall vacancy rate of about 17 percent.
Green committed to looking into the idea of exit interviews and job satisfaction surveys, but said she couldn’t give a timeline for that work as it had just been proposed.
‘On the verge of losing resident nurses’
Raymond Pidzamecky, a registered social worker in the NWT, outlined the impact the “double standard” is having on resident nurses in an April 21 letter to Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby.
Pidzamecky wrote that medical services are already short-staffed and nurses say working overtime has exacerbated stress and anxiety, impacting patient care and resulting in an “increase in burnout, mistakes, and frustration.”
“It is no secret that the entire country is suffering from a shortage of experienced nurses. We are on the verge of losing our resident NWT nurses to other parts of Canada,” he wrote.
Pidzamecky said the nurses he spoke to want a forum for open and honest communication.
“From my experience, it’s best to give people an opportunity to speak and to listen,” he said.
One NWT resident who works in the healthcare support service industry known as allied health – asking not to be identified to discuss a sensitive work-related matter – told Cabin Radio not only nurses are affected by what they termed “unfair” and “illogical” health authority policies.
While some staff can’t work from home, they said, there are positions involving telehealth services that would allow an easy transition to remote working. Yet the worker said the health authority is not allowing such workers the opportunity to work from home as not all healthcare staff can do so.
That means workers end up using sick days if they have a cough or a runny nose – which can run out quickly if they have chronic conditions like allergies – even if they could have worked from home.
“These sweeping rules come up that are supposed to try to make every department equal. But they don’t. I don’t think that makes any sense,” the worker said.
“A speech therapist isn’t a nurse, and a nurse isn’t a physiotherapist, and the physiotherapist isn’t an ultrasound technician.”
The allied health worker said other rules frustrate staff and prompt them to consider leaving the territory, a situation they said was worsening during the pandemic. In some units where once only inpatient services had to be covered if someone was sick or on vacation, they said, now only one person is allowed to take vacation at a time as outpatient services, which are not urgent, also have to be backfilled.
“These rules are getting more and more restrictive and there doesn’t really seem to be a logical explanation for why that is,” they said.
“The lack of flexibility and sort-of illogical restrictions just create a resentful work environment.”
The worker said staff at the Stanton hospital and medical centre, in particular, have “been through a lot” in the last five years, including turnover in upper management, a near-strike, changes in staff, moving to a new hospital building, and the pandemic. They believe more can be done to mitigate the stress workers face.
“We’re told to prioritize mental health. I think people are wondering: why are healthcare workers sort-of exempt from that?”
‘I wouldn’t recommend working there to my worst enemy’
Beyond policies, nurses at Stanton Territorial Hospital allege mistreatment from senior administrators is affecting morale. They describe feeling “harassed” and receiving a barrage of “threatening emails.”
A former worker at the hospital, who again asked for anonymity to discuss their employment in the field, said that’s the tip of an iceberg.
The hospital worker described bullying among hospital nurses as a “high school drama show” affecting staff retention. They claimed some nursing students even changed placements after they were targeted by nurses who “went out of their way to ruin students’ careers.”
“I wouldn’t recommend working up there to my worst enemy. I truly wouldn’t,” they said.
“It’s not a good environment out there. It is not mentally safe. It’s not emotionally safe.”
The former employee said some hospital staff have severe anxiety, are “constantly throwing up,” and don’t want to go to work because of the issues. They said they had experienced bullying first-hand and heard nurses “talking crap” about other workers and patients.
“Nurses are supposed to be there to care for you and they’re supposed to be caring individuals,” they said. “It’s not cool.”
A spokesperson for the territorial health authority previously told Cabin Radio the hospital follows NWT government policies regarding human resources and the creation of a respectful, harassment-free workplace. The spokesperson said staff could report concerns to their manager, the chief operating officer, the chief executive officer, or through an “anonymous feedback mechanism.”
The former worker said in their experience, when complaints are made to management, they aren’t taken seriously.
“Nothing ever gets done about it. It gets swept under the rug all the time,” they said.
“Your supervisor, and your manager, and upper management are supposed to have your back and they’re supposed to go through the steps of helping you resolve something if anything comes up.
“But if you’re the person that goes and brings up a complaint about bullying and harassment, you’re the one targeted for being a tattletale.”