May 26, 2022

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B.C. health agencies target workers who report under-staffing, burnout

Critics says nurses, others, effectively working under a gag order

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Burnt-out health-care workers face a “gag order” that bars them from speaking out about their working conditions and some are facing discipline for social media posts, according to the union representing nurses.

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The B.C. Nurses’ Union is representing “a number” of nurses who are facing discipline for their social media posts.

One nurse who works at Royal Inland Hospital in B.C.’s Interior said she was given a verbal warning after posting about nurse safety in a private social media group made up of other nurses on the ward.

That experience has left her afraid to raise the alarm about the extreme staffing shortages at the hospital which she said is putting patients and nurses at risk.

“There’s definitely a fear of speaking out,” said the nurse, who Postmedia News is not identifying to protect her from reprisals. “Anything relating to work we’re told that (is) social media offside.”

The nurse said the hospital is routinely operating at 50 per cent of the normal staffing for night shifts. Nurses won’t take a break for their entire 12-hour shift because they don’t want to leave their colleagues short, she said. Others are working overtime with sometimes 16 hour shifts.

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When asked about the staffing shortages at Royal Inland Hospital in question period on Monday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said he acknowledges “the extraordinary work of everyone at Royal Inland Hospital and at hospitals across British Columbia” and knows the health-care system is facing “exceptional challenges.”

The government, he said, has added 30,000 health care workers in B.C. since the start of the pandemic.

Despite those assurance from government, the nurse said she and her colleagues have been trying to raise concerns about dire staffing levels only to be ignored.

“I know nurses who have left the profession entirely because they can’t deal with the moral distress of not being able to properly care for patients,” she said. “I’ve seen nurses go off on stress leave because they’re not able to do their job and they worry they might actually being doing more harm than good by coming here.

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B.C. Nurses’ Union president Aman Grewal confirmed the union has been made aware of nurses disciplined for their social media posts. Grewal could not say how many nurses are facing discipline or give specific details on the type of discipline faced.

“It’s not even that they’re breaking any patient confidentiality, it’s just that they’re speaking about working short, or they’re speaking about their employer, and they’re being disciplined for that or they’re being taken to the college” of nurses and midwives, Grewal said.

“All that they are doing is advocating on behalf of their patients, letting the public know the reality of what public health care is like right now, that the health-care system is so strained under the weight of this pandemic, about the staffing crisis that we have,” she said.

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The union represents more than 48,000 professional nurses and allied health care workers, providing care in hospitals, long-term care facilities and in the community.

The B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives said complaints received about nurses’ social media use and technology “relate to boundaries, privacy and confidentiality, professional integrity, and public trust,” according to a post on its website. “The issue is not social media or communication technology itself, but how it’s used — personally and professionally.”

A college spokesperson could not say how many nurses are facing discipline for social media posts.

“Outcomes depend on the specific case and may range from no further action, to letters of expectation, to consent agreements with either remedial or disciplinary terms,” the spokesperson said.

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Health care workers are not covered under B.C.’s whistleblower legislation, B.C.’s Public Interest Disclosure Act.

That means nurses are effectively under a “gag order” said B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon, which he called “appalling”.

B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said she’s heard from a growing number of health-care workers who are worried about the repercussions of speaking out, which highlights the need for the immediate changes to the act.

Dix promised health care workers will be covered by the legislation by March 2023. However, he assured health-care workers that “in practice” they’re covered now.

In April, the government expanded the public sector workers covered under the act, including employees at most provincial tribunals, agencies, boards and commissions, but it did not add employees at health authorities and in education.

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The act, which became law in December 2019, allows employees to share information about possible wrongdoings that affect the public interest with designated officers or the Office of the Ombudsperson without reprisals.

In her report on systemic racism in the health-care system, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said that whistleblower protection is crucial in protecting health care workers who speak out when they witness discrimination or wrongdoing.

The whistleblower protection law was introduced following a report by ombudsperson Jay Chalke into the 2012 firing of eight Health Ministry workers, one of whom later died by suicide.

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— with files from The Canadian Press 


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