Long before COVID-19 laid bare the faults in long term care, burnout was common among workers. But the pandemic has taken an even greater toll on their mental and physical well-being
By Cathy Miehm
The staff at Heritage Square, an assisted-living/long term care facility in Vernon, BC, had been doing everything right. But “COVID doesn’t tell you when it’s coming,” says Hubert van Berkel.
Hubert is a Local 501 member, steward, and occupational health and safety liaison for Interior HomeCare Solutions. One of their contracts is the Heritage Square facility, which is where he works.
He was one of the first staff members to fall ill when COVID-19 hit his workplace in December. He returned to work in early January with a clean bill of health, happy to pitch in and provide some relief to coworkers who were still grappling with the outbreak at his facility, which wasn’t declared over until late February.
Feelings of burnout were common among healthcare workers long before COVID-19. But the heightened pressure of a lingering pandemic has taken an even greater toll on their mental and physical well-being.
Hubert recently spoke to the Guide about working during a pandemic, burnout among long term care staff in BC, and how COVID-19 has laid bare the faults in the sector.
Tell us about the outbreak at Heritage Square.
The Okanagan area had been pretty good through the first part of the pandemic. It was only as winter came that COVID started showing up in places. We got it in our workplace around December 21.
I’m in a very small office in the building, in the same area as our HR manager and other staff. We all quarantined through Christmas and New Year. But the virus went through our building very quickly.
There’s nothing anyone can do once it’s in there—it’s just got to go through. We lost eight residents.
How did staff cope?
Since the managers and top staff were the first to get sick, it meant the people working with the residents didn’t have much support. As COVID spread, everyone who was still okay had to start extending their hours. You can’t just bring someone else in, because BC has a one-site rule in place for long term care staff.
Our people had to work 16-hour days with very short notice. And because it was Christmas, staffing was already tight. It was a nightmare.
There were also questions about who brought it into the facility. We’ll never know, and I’ve tried really hard over the last months to convince people not to turn it into a blame game.
Mentally, it’s not good for any of us.
We were doing everything we were supposed to do to prevent it. But COVID doesn’t tell you when it’s coming.
What was the situation when you came back to work?
My first day back, my job was to go around and ask what we could do to support the people who had been working through the outbreak. Nobody had been asking them those questions, because there was nobody there to ask them.
There were basic issues like nutrition. Staff were coming to work and then being asked to extend for 16 hours. Well, who brings in enough food to be able to do that? And in an outbreak, you can’t start having food delivered. They said just providing snacks in the lunchroom would help.
As we started to come back, we noticed a big difference in the morale of the staff. Even though they were still coping with an outbreak, just having everyone return helped reduce some of the stress.
Have you recovered fully from your bout of COVID?
I was sick for about 10 days. I lost my sense of taste and smell and I had a cold. The only thing that’s taken time to get rid of has been the fatigue. And my wife had a cough that lingered for about two and a half weeks.
But other than that, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. What we’ve noticed, as it’s gone through the facility, is the last of our staff who were testing positive were the younger ones, and they were showing no symptoms.
I was happy to help out when I went back because those of us who had COVID are now at lower risk. We could go in and do some housekeeping in the rooms of residents who had COVID.
How has the pandemic affected your colleagues’ personal lives? Have any of them quit?
Right now, all they’re doing is working. All these girls and guys do is work, work, work. Then they get home, they make a quick little meal, and they go to bed. They don’t even really have a family life right now.
We’ve seen some people pull away and say, “I can’t come in right now because my husband is immunocompromised,” that kind of stuff. They’re not quitting their jobs, but they have legitimate reasons for not working in the building.
One of the things I’ve seen in this last year is that our people are really starting to feel isolated. They work long hours. They can’t see their kids or their grandkids. We talk about the residents feeling isolated, but staff are starting to feel it, too.
I encourage everyone to use their employee and family assistance program if they have one. It gives them someone to talk to and can really make a difference. Even our managers encourage staff to utilize the program.
Have the workers in your facility received the pandemic pay that was promised by the BC government?
In BC right now, it doesn’t matter if you work in private long term care or you work in government long term care; everybody makes the same money. For us, that’s good, because we work for a private contractor, so our wages are less than in a government facility.
That one was just automatic when they created the one-site rule here at the start of the pandemic. When they forced people to work in one facility only, then they had to make it fair. Otherwise, people would just quit and go to the sites where they could make more money.
But some of our workers were supposed to receive a pandemic bump cheque in 2020, and we were well into 2021 before that money finally arrived. It’s not only for healthcare workers. It’s a huge list of workers who are eligible. The government apologized before Christmas for not having that money distributed.
What faults in the long term care system has COVID exposed?
In private facilities, one of the areas that has always been low in staffing is housekeeping. And that’s become noticeable during the outbreak. We got extra hours for housekeeping because of all the hygiene requirements.
To me, that type of cleaning should always be the standard because we always have to fear outbreaks, right? If it’s not coronavirus, it’s something else. We’ve got our own government people in here saying that this is the way it should be done. So maybe we better leave that in place now.
How can CLAC help improve working conditions for its members in long term care?
As a union, we can’t dictate to the owner of the facility how to run the business. Owners follow the guidelines of the government for long term care, and they’re going to look at the minimum requirements and aim for that. If it’s a private facility, they still want to try to make money. Our union can help by pushing the government to raise those minimums.
Let’s look at which long term care facilities in BC had COVID outbreaks. In Vernon right now, it’s two private-run homes to every government-run home.
The government has set the standard that every resident must have their own room. It’s great, because when we go into outbreak, everyone can be isolated.
But, obviously, if you have everybody in their own room, you have more areas to clean. So it’s not enough for the government to announce funding for new beds. It also has to make sure there’s money to pay for all that extra cleaning.
What lasting effects will this pandemic have on long term care?
Our biggest problem isn’t right now. It will come when this pandemic is over. These people are going to be so burned out.
I think that a lot of workers are going to try to change professions or they’re going to want to go on a really long holiday. Either way, it’s going to hurt the system.
Read more about pandemic-induced workplace burnout, as well as tips on how to mitigate it.
How to Extinguish Burnout
A Different World