Pandemic worsened stress on northern health care workers: Yukon University report

Health care workers were pushed to the brink during the pandemic, exacerbating existing problems that still persist, according to a new Yukon University study.

The paper, published this week, looks at the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic had on Yukon’s health care workers.

“The challenges of providing care in the north are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to increased stress,” the authors concluded. Those challenges include recruitment and retention of health care professionals, limited resources and serving rural, isolated communities.

“We must build a more resilient health care system that can sustain our aging society.”

The study surveyed 141 health care workers in the territory last fall, asking them a number of questions about burnout caused by workload, loss of personal time and incapacity to care for patients.

Findings indicated little difference in burnout and fatigue between health care workers in Yukon’s urban and rural communities.

More than half of respondents reported feeling tired, worn-out and exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Over a quarter indicated they often feel they “can’t take it anymore.”

Nurses reported higher rates of burnout than doctors, though the majority of respondents from both camps said burnout and fatigue became worse in the pandemic. 

The report noted that other jurisdictions have seen a loss of health care workers due to worsening stress levels.

“In light of these findings, there is cause for concern that frontline [health care] workers in the Yukon, specifically nurses, may follow a similar trend,” the report states. 

“Seeing as the Yukon’s healthcare system is reliant on nurses, especially in those who work in rural communities, this is problematic as it could exacerbate a pre-existing staffing crisis, compromise patient care, and increase the workload for remaining staff.”

Two men stand outside the Yukon convention centre in daylight. There is snow on the ground.
Dr. Alex Kmet, right, outside the Yukon Convention Centre in 2020, where the territorial government set up a temporary respiratory assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Dr. Alex Kmet is president of the Yukon Medical Association. He says the added stress and burnout of the pandemic has led to a moral crisis among many of his colleagues.

“It turns a bit from just physical tiredness to feeling demoralized… that feeling of, geez, I can’t do what I think is right, or I can’t give my patients what they need. You know, now I’m starting to feel hopeless about what I do. Now I’m not getting the satisfaction that drives me.”

Still, Kmet says he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of Yukon health care, citing a recent agreement between the territory and the federal government.

“If implemented and applied effectively, that new agreement, in principle, does add some potential hope that, hey, here’s some extra support that we need,” he said, adding that he believes it will still take a long time for the health care system to make any substantial improvements to service.

Liris Smith is the health research chair at Yukon University, and a lead researcher for the paper. She says she hopes the report’s findings will help guide that change.

“One thing that we heard over and over again is that the health care workers really want to be at the table when we start talking about solutions to the human resource crisis that’s happening in health care, and particularly in planning for future health emergencies and pandemics.”

That change is necessary, even now that the world has moved past the pandemic, the report states.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated how central the health of our society and health care system is to a well-functioning society,” it reads. “We must build a more resilient health care system that can sustain our aging society.”


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