Long-term care employees short-staffed, worried about mental health

Workers putting in extra hours, filling in where needed, but it's wearing them down

Andrea Murray comes home from work every day exhausted and can’t bring herself to do anything except eat dinner and hang out with her dog, Rover.

Murray is one of Nova Scotia’s long-term care employees, who are dealing with the “overwhelming” effects of the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 virus. She works as a care assistant at Northwood Halifax Campus. 

On a normal day, she helps residents with their daily routines, such as dressing, grooming and feeding. She’s a kind and familiar face, a comfort for the residents. 

Now, Murray says staff shortages have broken that routine. She says she’s taking on more tasks, some she wasn’t trained for until the Omicron wave left her no choice.

“I’m doing extra feedings and helping in other departments within the building to fill in where help is needed,” she says. Murray says she has to be more open and flexible than ever before to help complete tasks. 

She’s not alone. The situation faced by the province’s long-term care workers during the Omicron wave of COVID-19 came up this week at the legislature.

Nova Scotia Nurses Union president Janet Hazelton spoke about staff shortages in long-term care homes during the legislature’s standing committee on Tuesday. The meeting was held by video conference to discuss the staffing shortages in long-term care. 

“I hear from long-term care workers that when they ask a resident if anything is wrong, they pray the resident says no. Because they simply do not have the time to help everyone they’d like to, everyone they should,” Hazelton told the committee.

“It’s been draining,” Murray said. “I’m just hoping this wave will come to an end so it can stop being overwhelming in the workplace. I’m definitely dreading work.” 

The lack of energy has taken a toll on her mental well-being. She knows her coworkers should stay home if they’re sick, but she can’t ignore how her environment has changed. 

Northwood did not respond to The Signal’s requests for comment. 

Andrea Murray takes a selfie with her dog, Rover, after an exhausting shift at Northwood care home.
Andrea Murray sits with her dog, Rover, after an exhausting shift at Northwood Halifax Campus.   Carleigh MacKenzie

At least 52 facilities — 50 nursing homes and two residential care homes — are affected by staff shortages. Eighteen of these are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.

Nova Scotia updated its isolation requirements on Jan. 10. If you have COVID-19 and are fully vaccinated, you are required to isolate for at least seven days. If you are not fully vaccinated, you are required to isolate for at least 10 days. If you continue to have symptoms, you must stay in isolation until your symptoms improve. 

These shorter isolation periods will allow staff to return to work sooner than before, assuming they have no symptoms.

Emma Bannister is a residential care assistant employed by Regional Residential Service Society. Bannister works in a residential home for adults with intellectual disabilities, which provides 24-hour assistance.

She says a day at work is like a day in anyone’s household. The staff makes meals, helps with hygiene, participates in activities with the residents, administers medicine and performs housekeeping duties. 

Before the Omicron wave, Bannister worked 75 hours per month and picked up extra shifts every now and then.

“Right now, I have 55 hours this week and I had the same last week,” she says. 

Bannister says there are only two day staff available to work, including herself, because everyone else is isolating. 

“It should go back to normal next week, but because Omicron is so contagious and the case numbers are so high, it can change at any moment if another staff member becomes positive or has symptoms.” 

Hazelton says staff shortages in long-term care homes have caused problems even before the pandemic. She says staffing ratios haven’t changed since 1989, and residents’ conditions have become more demanding over the years.

“Omicron has had a crippling effect on staffing, particularly in long-term care,” said Hazelton.

Bannister says her workplace makes her feel safe because it’s a small house with three residents, but working overtime, along with juggling her personal responsibilities, is getting to her. 

“I don’t think working more hours has individually affected my mental health, but that mixed with school, stress about COVID-19 and not feeling like I can satisfy my residents with activities and stimulation due to being stuck at home has. I definitely feel more high-strung since the Omicron outbreak.”

Carleigh MacKenzie

Carleigh MacKenzie

Carleigh MacKenzie is a Cape Breton-born writer. She is the copy editor for the Dalhousie Gazette and the vice-president of Dalhousie’s Creative Writing Society. She enjoys intimate longform writing, legal articles and feel-good stories.

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