BC health agencies target workers who report understaffing or burnout

Critics say nurses, others, work effectively under gag order

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According to the union representing nurses, exhausted healthcare workers face a “gag order” preventing them from speaking out about their working conditions and some face disciplinary action for their social media posts.

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The BC Nurses’ Union represents “a number” of nurses who face disciplinary action for their social media posts.

A nurse who works at the Royal Inland Hospital in the interior of British Columbia said she received a verbal warning after posting information about nurse safety in a private social media group made up of other nurses from the service.

The experience scared her to sound the alarm about extreme staffing shortages at the hospital which she says are putting patients and nurses at risk.

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

The nurse said the hospital regularly operates at 50% of normal staff for night shifts. Nurses won’t take a break for their entire 12-hour shift because they don’t want to let their co-workers short, she said. Others work overtime, sometimes working 16-hour shifts.

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Asked about staff shortages at the Royal Inland Hospital during Question Period on Monday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said he recognized ‘the extraordinary work of everyone at the Royal Inland Hospital and in hospitals across Colombia British” and knew that the health system faced “exceptional challenges.

The government, he said, has added 30,000 health care workers to British Columbia since the pandemic began.

Despite these government assurances, the nurse said she and her colleagues tried to raise concerns about dire staffing levels only to be ignored.

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

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British Columbia Nurses Union President Aman Grewal confirmed that the union has been told that nurses have been disciplined for their social media posts. Grewal could not say how many nurses face disciplinary action or give specific details about the type of disciplinary action they face.

“It’s not even that they break patient confidentiality, it’s just that they talk about short-term work, or they talk about their employer, and they’re disciplined for it or they’re taken to the university” of nurses and midwives, Grewal said.

“All they do is advocate for their patients, let the public know the reality of what public health care looks like right now, that the health care system is so strained under the weight of this pandemic, about the personnel crisis that we have,” she said.

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The union represents more than 48,000 professional nurses and paramedics who provide care in hospitals, long-term care facilities and in the community.

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

A college spokesperson could not say how many nurses face disciplinary action for social media posts.

“Outcomes depend on the specific case and can range from no action, to letters of expectation, to consent agreements with corrective or disciplinary conditions,” the spokesperson said.

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Healthcare workers are not covered by British Columbia’s whistleblower law, the British Columbia Public Interest Disclosure Act.

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

B.C. Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said she’s heard a growing number of healthcare workers worry about the repercussions of speaking out, underscoring the need for immediate changes to the law.

Dix promised healthcare workers will be covered by the legislation by March 2023. However, he assured healthcare workers that “in practice” they are now covered.

In April, the government expanded the number of public sector workers covered by the law, including employees of most provincial courts, agencies, boards and commissions, but it did not add employees of health authorities and education.

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The law, which took effect in December 2019, allows employees to share information about possible wrongdoing that affects the public interest with designated officers or the Office of the Ombudsman without retaliation.

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

The Whistleblower Protection Act was introduced following a report by mediator Jay Chalke into the 2012 firing of eight Department of Health workers, one of whom later died by suicide.

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— with files from The Canadian Press

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