This week marks Nurses Week across North America. It’s a moment to pause and say thank you to those who work tirelessly to ensure we can all live better and healthier lives. Like any profession, many grow up dreaming to enter a field where they can make a difference in the lives of others, they don’t however, always know what unknowns it will bring. In the US alone, 100,000 plus nurses left the profession due to Covid burnout, in Canada 1 in 4 nurses intend to switch careers in the three years following the pandemic. Many of their reasons for leaving were indicated as stress, pay and lack of support.
In a report issued by the Canadian Health Workforce Network (CHWN) and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) in 2022, called Sustaining Nursing in Canada, a list of solutions that could help to address the shortage of nurses was laid out. Among those solutions was embedding peer support programs for nurses, with the aim to provide health workers who are experiencing emotional distress with non-clinical emotional support from their peers.
For this story, we spoke to one Canada-based nurse about their experiences in the nursing profession over the last few years. The individual has requested anonymity for this piece. A warning to readers, the below contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling please consider these providers in Canada or the USA.
How long have you worked in the nursing profession and what made you pursue nursing?
‘I have been a registered nurse for 10 years in primary acute care settings. I always knew I wanted to help people at a very young age, I enjoyed watching “medical dramas” on TV and I often thought about what life in the ER would be like.’
Can you share your mental health story as it relates to nursing?
‘My dream job that I worked so hard to get almost killed me. Literally. My life seemed to spiral out of control extremely fast. In hindsight, it was a cumulative build up of events that led to me hitting rock bottom.
I took great pride in serving for my community. I felt like it was my duty to provide the utmost care, to advocate for my patients in times when they couldn’t advocate for themselves. As a healthcare professional, we are constantly met with obstacles, which is part of the harsh realities of health care. We are faced with so much heartbreak day in and day out – we are there on the best and worst days of our patients and families lives, yet we are often expected to keep pushing forward. We have a job to do, and you cannot let our emotions get in the way of helping those in need.
Add to that the expectation of shift work. Twelve hour days. Twelve hour nights. Working overtime. Putting in a 14-16 hour shift isn’t shocking really, it’s expected. Working short staffed. If you don’t stay, you’re threatened with abandonment.
I started to believe that I solely existed to take care of others.
When you are so passionate and love your job, it can easily consume you. I was so dedicated to my career that no boundaries existed in my world, and sadly you’re praised for emotionally and mentally pushing yourself.
It was not until Covid hit that I truly felt the pressures weighing on me. Expectations grew exponentially on us. In the beginning, there was support for healthcare workers. Hearts drawn in windows or sent from schools, coffee and treats brought in from strangers, but that quickly faded. All of a sudden it felt like it was the world against health care workers.
I would have nightmares of watching myself drowning. Watching myself as a third person physically gasping for air, trying to get to the surface, but no one to save me. I started to experience paranoia, anxiety and eventually suicidal thoughts. I would file incident reports after incident reports in hopes someone would hear my cry for help. It was often met with shrugged shoulders. No one heard me. No one saw me.
One incident led to another. The debilitating chest pain Would take my breath away while I was working. I often would hope I was having a heart attack and it would just take me. I stopped sleeping, as I was scared to close my eyes. I hoped I would just stop breathing.’
Did your employer have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place?
‘Yes, they do provide you with an EAP program. I did use it a few times. If I remember correctly I was entitled to 6 “free sessions”. I did not have benefits at the time either as I was a part timer but working full time + hours. I went twice. Felt very uncomfortable. What healthcare professional has time to be vulnerable?’
Do you feel having a more proactive peer support model or early intervention after a traumatic code/event would be beneficial to front line workers??
‘Yes, I do. We are taught in nursing school the importance of debriefing. I have been exposed to many traumatic events, in my 10 years of nursing, I have had one debriefing session, on one incident, which lasted approximately one hour at most with no follow-up. Ask any nurse how often a true debriefing has happened in their career, you’ll likely receive radio silence.’
What do you think could have been done differently by your employer?
‘Support. Still to this day, I do not feel as though I have been supported by my employer. There had been many times I had expressed my concerns. Many times I worried about my safety and my wellbeing.
I’ve been told multiple times that it comes down to money. Budget cuts. Time. Corporate. I’ve been told that we can’t plan for the what ifs and the maybes. I wish someone would have just listened to me and validated me. I wish someone had supported me. I wish someone believed me.
This is why I often say: My dream job almost killed me.
I went from a happy, social, enthusiast individual to someone who no longer sees any light. There was no light at the end of the tunnel anymore.
I am thankful that I had the courage to reach out to my family doctor at the time. That he believed me. He didn’t question me. He saved me.
This healing journey has been torture. I will forever suffer and struggle. But there is now a pin-sized hole at the end of my tunnel.
If your organization is interested in peer support programs for nurses that you employ, please reach out via our contact page to set up a meeting to learn more about what PeerConnect can offer.’