'It's an unforgiving job'

GN social workers burned out by staffing crisis

By JANE GEORGE

CAMBRIDGE BAY – Two social workers in Cambridge Bay with a combined total of 14 years' experience in the community are off the job these days, reducing the Kitikmeot's meagre complement of full-time, permanent social workers by 50 per cent.

Dave Allen and Diana Thompson still reside in Cambridge Bay, but they have been on sick leave for weeks.

The two are reluctant to talk about why they are on extended leave.

But a variety of stresses, including overwork, management upheavals and bureaucratic missteps, appear to have contributed to their taking prolonged breaks from their Government of Nunavut positions.

Asked about the absence of two permanent social workers in Cambridge Bay, Alex Campbell, deputy minister of health and community services, said he was "very concerned about the situation."

"I think there's other reasons other than the work load and the stress factors involved. There are more employee relations and dynamics that I don't want to get into," he said. "We want to try and manage that process. We want to retain them."

Their clients are now served by a hodge-podge of imported social workers and temporary hires with little knowledge of the community.

Of the 10 GN social worker positions budgeted for the Kitikmeot region, only four – including the jobs held by Allen and Thompson – are filled by full-time, permanent GN employees.

And if Allen and Thompson don't return to their jobs, the GN will lose two experienced social workers committed to staying in Cambridge Bay. Both are property owners and Allen, a hamlet councillor and father of three, is married to a local woman.

In Cambridge Bay, the community's three-person social worker office has rarely been staffed to capacity.

Richard Leblanc, a former head of social programs for the Kitikmeot, said he was frustrated in his attempts to recruit social workers when he worked in Cambridge Bay last year.

Leblanc, speaking from Ottawa, said he couldn't find qualified social workers to move to the region and when he did, other northern jurisdictions offered them more benefits.

"Recruitment was horrendously difficult. The NWT and Alberta were pretty well scalping who we were recruiting because their wages were on par and they offered fly-outs," Leblanc said.

Meanwhile, understaffing created overwork, burnouts and conflict as social workers focused on crisis intervention instead of prevention.

"It's an unforgiving job because there are a lot of areas of that job which are adversarial, and the decision that the department makes sometimes the community doesn't like," Leblanc said. "So, you're working many, many hours a day, and you're never off call, and the community's writing complaints about you."

The plight of Nunavut social workers may become more acute in the wake of an Oct. 27 memo from Bruce Peterkin, the new assistant deputy minister of the department of health and social services.

This internal memo, which was obtained by Nunatsiaq News, says "the Department of Health and Social Services will not be approving the hiring of agency social workers effective immediately."

At present, the GN has a total of 46 social worker positions, of which 25 are filled by indeterminate social workers.

Seven more are filled by agency social workers, another seven are held by social workers on contracts and seven are vacant, according to Campbell.

The key to improving this situation is to increase the number of indeterminate social workers by an aggressive recruitment campaign, not to hire temporary fill-ins, Campbell said in a recent interview.

The motivation behind a GN push to recruit and retain is simple, Campbell said: agency social workers cost three to four times more than indeterminate social workers.

Campbell said his long-term goal is to come up with a recruitment and retention incentive strategy, similar to the GN's strategy for recruiting and retaining nurses.

Training more Inuit social workers is also part of the plan to boost the numbers of permanent social workers in Nunavut.

To boost recruitment, Campbell also wants to see requirements for social workers change. At present, social workers need educational background as well as experience on-the-job and in child welfare issues.

Campbell said changes to the job requirements would streamline, not dumb down, the requirements.

Campbell said it's no use asking the GN for more social worker positions until the department can fill existing positions.

But Doug Workman, the president of the Nunavut Employees Union, said the GN isn't offering solutions that protect the safety and mental wellness of its own workers, by refusing to hire more social workers, even from agencies.

And, as for sending inexperienced social workers into Nunavut, Leblanc said that's a mistake and will backfire on the GN.

Leblanc said inexperienced social workers who lack on-the-job support won't stay in Nunavut.

Instead, they'll go back home and spread the word that the territory is a bad place to work, Leblanc said.

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