Nurses are among our most vulnerable public servants, potentially putting themselves in harms way almost every day just by showing up for work. They expose themselves to danger, violence, illness and disease almost every day. Most do it all as a public service, working to protect and care for us – their community. It is worrying that nurses – already fighting health care cuts – need to be concerned about suffering physical or emotional abuse in the workplace while they tend the sick. The New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU) recently revealed that almost a third of registered nurses in New Brunswick have been physically abused and almost half have been emotionally abused.
New Brunswick nurses are not alone and this problem is by no means new. A 2001 study of 43,000 nurses in five countries found those working in Canada reported high levels of emotional and physical abuse, while separate data found almost 40 per cent of Albertan nurse respondents had experienced an incident of emotional abuse in the last five shifts, all according to a 2002 study done for Health Canada. For decades now our nurses have been putting themselves in the firing line in order to treat us. For the NBNU, at least, enough is enough.
Safer nurses means better patient care
The NBNU concluded its 39th AGM in late October with its message on nurse safety. The meeting was timed to coincide with Canadian Patient Safety Week, yet the message to emerge for the AGM was one of personal safety in the workplace.
A number of registered nurses at the meeting spoke up on the physical and mental abuse they had suffered on the job, one even saying she had received more abuse as a registered nurse than she had when she used to work as a correctional officer.
“According to the most recent survey by Statistics Canada 30.4 per cent of New Brunswick [registered nurses] have been physically abused and 41.7 per cent have been emotionally abused at work,” NBNU president Marilyn Quinn said. “If a [nurse] is unable to work in a safe environment, how can we expect them to turnaround and then deliver safe patient care? If we don’t investigate issues raised by our frontline workers to implement change, New Brunswick will fail to achieve sustainable, safe patient care in its healthcare system. It is time to create a culture of employee safety for healthcare workers.”
Quinn’s message is clear – it is time to implement changes to create a safer, more hospitable workplace for our nurses. Otherwise it won’t just be nurses who suffer the consequences.
Nurse feelings of undervalue
Here in lies the crux of this vital issue. Nurses are a critical part of our health system and hospitals, and have long felt their position is undervalued. One has simply to ask whether the situation would be the same if it was doctors getting the same level of physical and emotional abuse?
Allowing a work environment where abuse can occur to almost a third of New Brunswick nurses perhaps speaks volumes on how they are viewed. Yet nurses play a key role in quality health care and patient care, providing services ranging from guiding patients to the services/support they need, to supporting ER doctors dealing with the critically injured to helping patients deal long-term issues such as eating disorder treatment.
Outside of the hospital nurses can help develop health programs, be part of medical research, develop and implement outreach programs or even specialize in psychiatric care. The demands and opportunities available to nurses is as varied as the skills they must master. By undervaluing them –and exposing them to a dangerous workplace – our society is undermining many of the services the community and our family and friends rely on to be healthy, happy and at home.
Fighting nurse abuse
Zero tolerance and nothing less is the position of the Nurses Association of New Brunswick (NANB), released in 2009. Nurses can experience abuse at work from sources such as violent patients, distraught families of patients and lecherous co-workers. None of which is acceptable. The greater concern, says the NANB, is an under-reporting of violent incidents due to a misconception that they are part of the job.
Nurses have to refuse to accept violence, this is an important step. However, it should be seen as merely a starting point. Zero tolerance needs to be encouraged by co-workers and bosses. A zero tolerance environment with the relevant safeguards is essential for nurses to perform their duties. Further a culture and attitude shift on the importance of nurses is required to help support the fight against violent and emotional abuse of nurses. It is the least we can do to protect those working daily to save and improve our lives.