The union representing most Ontario paramedics is calling on the provincial government to address mental health of emergency medical services staff amidst gruelling working conditions through the pandemic.
“Paramedics and dispatchers have struggled with heavy workloads for years. But the sharp increase in call volumes and lengthier offload delays at hospitals during the pandemic has worsened working conditions. Paramedics and dispatchers are burning out and desperately require better mental health supports,” said Niko Georgiadis, an active paramedic and chair of the CUPE Ambulance Committee of Ontario, which represents nearly 6,000 paramedics and dispatchers across Ontario.
The union is calling on the Ontario government to standardize mental health benefits for emergency medical services workers across the province to eliminate regional disparities, and to provide paramedics priority access to mental health providers.
In a survey conducted last October, responses by 1,440 of CUPE’s emergency medical services members across 22 regions revealed that chronic understaffing and crushing workloads were having a profoundly negative impact on their health:
92 per cent said they did not have enough staff to meet the needs of their communities
97 per cent said their workload has increased during the pandemic
91 per cent work overtime regularly. About half of them say they log anywhere from 13 hours to over 36 hours of overtime a month
84 per cent said their workload is impacting their mental and/or physical health
73 per cent said their employer is not doing enough to address their mental health
67 per cent said their workload has resulted in headaches/migraines, with 66 per cent saying they have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks
The survey results are consistent with prior research by CUPE showing that staffing and scheduled ambulance hours were not keeping up with rising call volumes, resulting in missed breaks during long-shifts, increasing overtime, and high rates of injuries and stress. As a result, EMS services in regions represented by CUPE are facing a recruitment and retention problem, contributing to ambulance shortages.
Georgiadis recommended a two-pronged approach to addressing these issues: improve working conditions and invest in mental health.
“Paramedics have been routinely working overtime to serve our communities. But the research is clear – the workloads are not sustainable and are profoundly hurting our wellbeing,” Georgiadis said.
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, said that paramedics have played a critical role in the pandemic as first responders, and deserve decent working conditions.
“It’s shameful that chronic underfunding of our healthcare system has deepened the crisis in our EMS sector and created highly stressful working conditions for paramedics. The provincial government must immediately redress these issues. If our EMS system fails to take care of paramedics, then who will take care of the patients?”