This op-ed co-written by CFNU President Linda Silas and MNU President Darlene Jackson ran in the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday, January 21, 2023. To view it on the Winnipeg Free Press website, please click this link

You don’t have to be ill to know Manitoba’s health-care system is only barely functioning. In fact, it has become entirely dependent on nurses working substantial overtime to keep it afloat. We’re a floundering ship and, without overtime, our ship would have sunk by now.

Excessive overtime, however, quickly burns out our health-care staff and is driving many away from positions in the public system, further worsening the shortage, as evidenced by the number of vacant positions.

Additionally, nurse morale in Manitoba has never been lower. Workloads are crushing, with more overtime than ever coupled with short staffing. And now we are starting 2023 in a national pediatric health crisis.

Manitobans know the problems we are facing as a result of a dire shortage of nurses; still, the government’s promises are empty, and its solutions are vague — or worse, are promised yet never materialize.

In Winnipeg, the higher number of pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital has had serious consequences. Shared Health has reported there were 15 pediatric patients receiving intensive care at the provincial hospital as of Jan. 4; the normal baseline capacity for the pediatric ICU (PICU) is nine.

At that time, most pediatric patients in intensive care were infants and toddlers experiencing severe respiratory symptoms associated with RSV bronchiolitis and Influenza A. The neonatal ICU (NICU), which only has a capacity of 50, had 46 patients on Jan. 4. As a result of these patient levels, necessary pediatric surgeries have been postponed.

Nurses want Manitobans to know we have offered solutions and are eager to collaborate with all levels of government. What we want is simple: for patients to finally receive the care they need, and for nurses to practise their profession under safe and sustainable working conditions.

For those things to happen, governments must do three things to fix the nursing shortage crisis: keep experienced nurses in their jobs, bring nurses back to the public sector and recruit nurses where they are needed most.

We need proven programs, backed by firm timelines and real accountability.

We need strong, authentic leaders who care in order to prevent nurses from quitting, decreasing their positions to part-time or retiring early. We need accountability to ensure safe patient care, and we need nurses’ working conditions to be improved.

Manitoba can legislate to reduce workloads, by implementing safe nurse-to-patient ratios and making targeted investments in retention initiatives. These initiatives could be amplified if the federal government would also invest to support return-and-recruitment initiatives, including mental-health programming.

Manitoba’s nurses have held on for more than two years, weighed down by trauma and hopelessness. They are leaving the public health system and the profession in record numbers. And they aren’t afraid to say that despite once loving their profession, it isn’t what it once was.

In fact, such fundamentals as patient-care standards, being able to provide compassionate care and taking the time to connect with patients have become luxuries.

Nurses are also recommending the federal government establish a collaborative health workforce council of provincial and territorial health ministries. This council would be mandated to improve local and regional health workforce planning and capacity building, so we do not endlessly repeat staffing fluctuations.

These solutions, backed by meaningful action, will help bring nurses and early-retirees back to the public sector, reducing Manitoba’s reliance on expensive private agencies while still ensuring surge needs are met across the country. We also need to further expand domestic training programs and target recruitment to diversify the nursing workforce.

To that end, Manitoba should scale up student nurse programs to support them securing employment in attractive full-time jobs and expand access to micro-credentials to support nurses wanting to advance in their careers.

Nurses deserve safe workplaces, and patients deserve access to the care they need. All levels of government must step up, just as nurses have for so long. Together, we can improve health care for patients and nurses alike, which is what every Manitoban deserves.

Darlene Jackson is president of the Manitoba Nurses Union and Linda Silas is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.