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More than 40 per cent of lower-paid Ontario hospital workers are considering leaving the sector, largely because of the stress and exhaustion they feel while toiling on short-staffed wards, according to a new union-commissioned poll.

The survey of 775 hospital workers, released Wednesday by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), offered a rare look at how health care providers other than doctors and registered nurses are faring during the staffing crisis that has plagued Canada’s medical system since the worst of the pandemic subsided.

Just under a third of the respondents were registered practical nurses. Most of the rest were personal support workers, housekeepers, clerical staff, food service workers and maintenance staff.

The survey found that 69 per cent of those workers felt their hospitals didn’t have enough staff to deliver high-quality patient care. Regularly doing the work of two or three people led 62 per cent to describe themselves as exhausted, 49 per cent to admit they have anxiety and 41 per cent to say they dread going to work. Fifty-two per cent said they were unhappy with their compensation.

“Many workers are breaking down and crying, knowing their patients are being shortchanged,” Sharon Richer, the secretary-treasurer of OCHU/CUPE, told a news conference. “They cry before their shifts. They cry after their shifts. They cry during their lunch breaks. They even cry at home as workplace stress bleeds into their lives.”

OCHU/CUPE, which represents about 50,000 hospital workers across the province, unveiled the findings as it prepared for mediation later this month with the Ontario Hospital Association. Workers have been without a contract since the end of September, Ms. Richer said.

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Katherine Zagrodney, a University of Toronto health economist whose research focuses on the labour supply of personal support workers, said she wasn’t surprised that low-wage employees such as PSWs – who help patients eat and bathe, among other activities – are feeling the ill-effects of working at understaffed hospitals.

The problem is a worrisome cycle, she explained. “Staffing shortages, we know, contribute to higher stress for those that remain and continue to work, and then that higher stress at work leads to even more health workers leaving their jobs, which then increases the pressure on the remaining workers and so on.”

Dave Verch, first vice-president of OCHU/CUPE and a long-time registered practical nurse, urged the provincial government to boost health spending by an additional $1.25-billion a year, on top of inflation, to raise staffing levels at hospitals. He also called on Ontario to follow British Columbia’s lead and establish staff-to-patient ratios he said would improve working conditions.

Asked to respond to the union’s findings, a spokeswoman for Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones shared a statement pointing to her government’s efforts to bring more nurses into the public health care system – despite the OCHU/CUPE survey being focused on other types of hospital workers.

The survey was conducted for OCHU/CUPE by Nanos, which contacted members of the union by phone from Oct. 16 to Oct. 19. No margin of error applies to the data, the polling firm said in its report.

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