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A nurse holds her head as nurses care for patients suffering from COVID-19 at Humber River Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, in Toronto on April 28, 2021.COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The nursing profession across Canada is in crisis. Nurses are burning out in record numbers, and the overwhelming workload caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest in a line of contributing factors. A survey released in July by Statistics Canada found that nurses are the health workers most likely to want to change jobs, with 24.4 per cent – a staggering one in four – saying they intend to leave the profession within three years.

We are seeing the fallout across the country. In May, CBC News reported that Alberta Health Services was forced to turn to staffing agencies to hire more than 200 travel nurses to fill staffing shortages across the province. In an April survey, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses found that four out of five of its members reported staffing vacancies in their work area had more than doubled in just one year. Over the August long weekend in Ontario, at least 14 hospitals had to close wards such as emergency departments and intensive care units owing to a lack of available nursing staff.

So what do we do about those one in four professionals, many of whom are nowhere near retirement age, who plan to leave nursing? It’s important to note that these numbers include not only registered nurses in hospitals or clinics but also their colleagues across all ranks – including senior administrators, educators and researchers.

Nursing is one of the professions that has long been considered a calling – a path of skill, professionalism and scholarship, but also of service, compassion and empathy. What can we do when the very sensitivity and altruism that often calls people to this work also has them leaving in droves as the burden of care grows too heavy to carry?

As acting dean of the top-ranked nursing school in the country – and in the top 10 globally – at the University of Alberta, I am deeply concerned and have been contemplating how we ought to respond to this crisis. What are the most meaningful, genuine and visionary responses that can have an immediate and long-term impact?

Oftentimes, the first response to any nursing shortage is to increase the number of nursing students. And in light of the desperate needs of the health care system, our Faculty of Nursing has worked hard to increase our undergraduate student enrolment, as have our collaborative program partners in Red Deer, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray. The Targeted Enrolment Expansion Program, part of the Alberta at Work initiative, has contributed to this investment.

It is wonderful news that applications to the U of A’s undergraduate nursing program increased by 20 per cent this year, possibly a reflection of the heightened pandemic-related awareness of the value of nurses. We are immensely proud to be preparing a growing number of entry-to-practice nursing graduates in our collaborative, after-degree, bilingual and honours programs.

But while, increasing enrolment is an important step, it is not a fulsome solution to the crisis. It will take four years for these students to graduate as entry-to-practice nurses.

The reality is that most nurses leaving the profession are not recent graduates. They are highly knowledgeable and experienced front-line nurses, nurse administrators, nurse educators and nurse researchers. With their exit, who will be left to educate students, be leaders in the health care system, provide expert front-line care as nurse practitioners and advance much-needed nursing research? Their leave-taking poses a serious threat to the health care system and to the advancement of nursing as a profession.

At this crucial time, we must find a way to encourage and support nurses who are thinking of leaving the profession to instead advance their education and step into advanced roles. This will take considerable effort by employers, regulators, government and nursing educators. We must commit together to make every effort to keep our dedicated nurses in the profession they have chosen, to all our benefit.

To this end, the Faculty of Nursing has made substantive changes to its graduate programs to meet the needs of established nursing professionals who are seeking to reinvigorate their careers. In addition to traditional paths, students can learn part-time or online and sometimes even fast-track into doctoral studies. Our refreshed master’s program prepares graduates to pursue careers in teaching or research or as nurse practitioners. Our doctoral program is undergoing equally exciting changes. We strive to bring the highest quality of education in ways that support nursing learners in this difficult time.

The need for capable and compassionate leaders in our field has never been greater. We are investing in the very future of nursing and health care in this country, helping our most dedicated and deeply knowledgeable professionals find new ways to serve the public good.

Diane Kunyk is a professor and the acting dean at the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing.