New recruitment, retention strategy for Nunavut nurses close to release
“It’s a big burden. We recognize that there are nursing shortages across the territory”
The Nunavut government plans to soon release a new recruitment and retention strategy for nurses, its first since 2008.
The hope is that this new package of incentives will help remedy the chronic shortage of nurses in Nunavut, said Jennifer Berry, the Government of Nunavut’s chief nursing officer.
The 2008 plan, still in place until its replacement is approved, includes a system of “special allowances,” bonus payments and monthly payments for continuous service for the territory’s nearly 300 nurses.
But it excludes teaching nurses, administrators and non-nursing health professionals. The plan also didn’t directly address three big issues for nurses: staff housing rents, the cost of living, and wage levels.
The new plan is different, Berry said in a recent interview.
“We wanted to go beyond just the financial bonuses in place to ‘what are things we have to do to strengthen the nursing workforce as a whole,'” she said.
There will be more elements in the plan to help nurses maintain work-life balance, Berry said.
The plan’s goal is to respond to the question: “how do we help our nurses stay healthy themselves?”
“If we don’t find a way to improve work-life balance we’ll always be in a place of constant turnover,” she said.
“It’s a big burden. We recognize that there are nursing shortages across the territory. It doesn’t mean that the quality of services [which] the nurses are delivering are less: it’s just they cannot take on any more.”
Nunavut is not unique in its need for nurses—a nursing shortage persists across Canada. But recruiting and retaining nurses in Nunavut is especially challenging, Berry said.
At present, there is only one program in Canada to train and provide certification for remote nursing.
“It leaves you in a very challenging position,” Berry said.
So Nunavut’s Health Department wants to develop its own pool of nurses and better support new nursing graduates for work in the North.
“We’re trying to train and build capacity,” she said.
This includes an orientation program and more training for nurses, as well as expanding mentorship beyond the one-year mentorship program currently offered to Nunavut Arctic College nursing graduates.
Right now, only about one-third of nurses in Nunavut are indeterminate, full-time GN employees.
About one-third are regular casuals, and another third are short-term agency nurses.
Roughly, the same staffing situation is found among mental health nurses, said Victoria Madsen, the GN’s director of mental health.
Of the total permanent nurses, 14 are indeterminate mental health nursing positions. There are also 18 casual mental health nurses for an estimated 32 mental health nursing positions in total.
But the lack of stability compounds the challenge of trying to get a good fit between mental health nurses and the community, and keeping mental health nurses in place for a longer period.
Madsen said she often hears that the first question people in the communities ask their mental health workers is “how long are you here for?”
“That’s a sad thing, and I wish it was different,” Madsen said.
As well, there are two months of the year when having mental health nurses in place is particularly difficult—August and December.
And there are always communities with less coverage: Grise Fiord, served by Resolute Bay, 90 minutes away by air, and Whale Cove and Chesterfield Inlet, which share one mental health nurse position.
Larger communities have more than one mental health nurse because of their size, Madsen said.
Baker Lake’s new mental health nurse arrives this week, which will mean the end of a period of service reduction that was recently in place.
“There was a time in Baker Lake that we had an indeterminate nurse, a mental health consultant with a masters in social work, and an outreach worker,” Madsen said.
“These three were a wonderful team and that’s what we strive for. Sometimes it all lines up and we see that it works.… They had a lot of programs. It was really pleasing.”
But Madsen said that when you look at Nunavut as a whole “you can see how much need there still is.”
You can find community mental health workers in 17 communities, she said, and “that is where the solution is going to come from.”
“When filled with local Inuit, they are stable and they know the community,” Madsen said.
The GN is now encouraging on-the-job learning and support for community health workers.
“We think that will help and increase retention,” Madsen said.