nurse resting head on handsA new poll paints a grim picture about the future of Ontario’s health care system, as nearly 4 out of 5 hospital workers say they are not confident in this government’s plan to improve the sector and more than 2 in 5 are considering quitting their jobs. 

The polling firm Nanos surveyed more than 750 hospital workers represented by CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, OCHU/CUPE, including registered practical nurses, personal support workers, housekeepers, and clerical staff. OCHU/CUPE represents approximately 50,000 hospital staff across the province.

Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of OCHU/CUPE, said the sector continues to lose trained and experienced staff due to poor working conditions and eventual burnout amidst poor stewardship of the system from the Ford government.

“The results are alarming to say the least - how are we going to keep our hospitals functioning without staff?” said Richer, “It’s shocking to note that the government doesn’t have a retention plan, even as we see staffing shortages contributing to a record number of ER shutdowns, and hospital service closures. The whole system depends on workers – and yet their needs continue to be neglected.”

The survey revealed the mental health toll of working in hospitals: 62% of workers polled said they were dealing with exhaustion and high stress levels; 41% reported dreading going to work; and 44% said they had trouble sleeping. Over half also said they were dissatisfied with compensation.

“Workers are stressed out because their patients are suffering, they are stressed out because working overtime and skipping breaks is not enough, they are stressed out because they can see the Tories are not interested in addressing their working conditions or providing them fair compensation. Consequently, they simply end up leaving because they lose faith in the system,” Richer said.

Dave Verch, first vice president of OCHU/CUPE, said the government must invest an additional $1.25 billion annually on top of inflation for the next four years to improve staffing levels and boost capacity, which will help hospitals provide services in line with rising demand because of population growth and ageing.

Rolled into the union’s demand to improve staffing levels is a proposal for staff-to-patient ratios in Ontario’s hospitals as a key measure to improve working conditions.

Verch pointed out that research from California - which implemented staffing ratios two decades ago - shows higher satisfaction among workers who benefit from more reasonable workloads, as well as improved patient care including lower mortality rates. In 2023, British Columbia became the first province in Canada to implement nurse-to-patient ratios.

“Staffing ratios would make a huge difference by setting a minimum standard of care,” Verch said, drawing on his 30-year experience of working as an RPN. “At a time when workers are losing faith in the system, it would offer a glimmer of hope that the government is serious about fixing this crisis.”

However, the government must take other complementary steps, he said, calling for fair compensation and more full-time jobs as part of a broader human resources strategy.