Breathless nurses | The Press

Exhausted and overworked, nurses lift the veil on the “unlivable” and “inhuman” context in which they work. Some have slammed the door, others are anticipating their retirement or going on sick leave. And those who remain are at their wit’s end.

Posted at 5:00 a.m.

Florence Morin Martel

Florence Morin Martel
The Press

Gabrielle Duchaine

Gabrielle Duchaine
The Press

“It had become unlivable. »

After 11 years as a nursing assistant at the Hôtel-Dieu de Sorel, Johanne Leclerc resigned in mid-January 2022. She thought she would spend her career there. She had found her place. Instead, she will go to work in a factory. “I feel alive again. I shouldn’t have to say that. It’s sad. But we may have nice messages from patients, we may have golden colleagues, at some point, that’s not enough. »

Mme Leclerc had been practicing for several years in a hospital department welcoming patients who had undergone an operation. By choice, she worked nights, a particularly difficult shift to fill. Lately, with the shedding and shortage of staff, she no longer “recognized her department”. The cases were heavier, the workload too.

Minister Christian Dubé said this week that the health network was “under high tension”. Beyond the system, it is above all its caregivers who are approaching the breaking point; nurses at the top of the list.

Since the start of the pandemic, their workload has increased, while their conditions are deteriorating. They are “disillusioned”, “under pressure”, “exhausted”, they tell us. Some are thinking of leaving. Others have already done so.

Since March 2020, the government has passed decrees allowing establishments to modify schedules, cancel vacations, relocate their employees and force them to work full time. These measures have started to be deployed again in several regions with the Omicron wave.

They create “additional pressure”, at a time when the current working conditions are “more than difficult” for the morale of nurses, observes the main union which represents these caregivers, the Interprofessional Health Federation (FIQ). “For some, it’s discouragement, while for others, it’s exhaustion,” says the president, Julie Bouchard.

“Some rush into retirement because they can’t take it anymore. The absenteeism rate also increases from week to week because it is the only way that some have found to regain their psychological and physical health,” she says.

The drop too much

Already exhausted before the pandemic, Johanne Leclerc found herself on sick leave at the end of 2019. She returned to work in the summer of 2021, part-time, or 7 nights out of 14, for health reasons.

In December, she caught COVID-19, likely in hospital. There followed a real obstacle course to pass a test, the caregivers not having priority access to screening. She was very sick for two weeks. When she returned to the hospital, still devastated, she discovered that her schedule was now full time, 9 nights out of 14. “I know you are not capable, but I have handcuffs”, him his manager would have said.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I don’t want to become a danger to my patients. On my ninth night, I don’t even know what I wrote in my file because I was almost sleeping face down. »

I worked for so long because I cared about the well-being of my patients and had good colleagues. My vocation crumbled along with the working conditions.

Johanne Leclerc, nurse who resigned in mid-January

“I almost run away”

Compulsory overtime, commonplace these days, and the lack of staff also weigh heavily in the emergency room of the Pierre-Le Gardeur hospital in Terrebonne. Out of breath, several members of the team wanted to share their reality.

“We no longer have a life,” says nurse Jade Lahaise. “My boyfriend, I see him one day every two weeks,” adds the young woman, who works evenings and regularly does voluntary or compulsory overtime.

It can happen, says licensed practical nurse Stéphanie Brousseau, that a dozen nurses are missing during a single shift.

Last week we had a bad night. Three girls came crying to my office to tell me they were stuck doing compulsory overtime [TSO].

Stéphanie Brousseau, nursing assistant at Pierre-Le Gardeur Hospital

“When I finish working, I almost run away to make sure I don’t stay,” says Mme Brousseau. Very often, she has no choice.

His colleague Christine Jolicoeur says: “When I’m on leave, I’m so burnt out that I turn off my phone and don’t call anyone. “Working in 16-hour shifts “fits him in for three days”.

Recently, too tired, Stéphanie Brousseau lost her patience with a patient. The man was screaming in the waiting room. “I said to him, ‘Sir, that’s enough. I’m on mandatory overtime and I’m stuck here.” She apologized.

Exhaustion also affects relationships between colleagues. “We can turn around and say to ourselves: ‘I’m sorry for a while ago, I spoke to you badly'”, says Mme Brousseau.

Shed five times

Stéphanie Filiatrault practices in a family medicine group (GMF) in Laval. But since March 2020, she has only worked there for 13 months. The reason: it was offloaded five times to other establishments, always with less than 24 hours notice.

I have never hated my job so much as last year.

Stéphanie Filiatrault, nurse clinician at the CISSS de Laval

His career makes you dizzy.

March 2020. The nurse clinician agreed to leave her clinic to help out in the delivery room of the Cité-de-la-Santé hospital. She wanted to feel useful.

Less than two months later, she was transferred to an emergency hotel to receive patients from the hospital.

At the beginning of July, she returned to her clinic.

September 2020, she was sent to CHSLD Idola-Saint-Jean, where she practiced in three different units. “They moved me when the stable nurses got sick,” she explains.

December, back to the delivery room, this time in the evening with OST at night.

March 2021, return to the GMF. She thought she was staying there.


On January 11, 2022, new load shedding, this time on an intensive care team at home. The news came to him the day before his first shift. She had to rush to cancel the upcoming appointments of all her patients. “We don’t even have 24 hours to turn around,” laments the young woman, who worries about the fate of her patients.

We don’t need to be brewed likewise. It is emotionally very heavy. It lacks a lot of humanism.

Stéphanie Filiatrault, nurse clinician at the CISSS de Laval

For Karine Jacques, nurse in a CHSLD at the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, working “has never been so unpleasant” as it is now. “We are in dire need of staff,” she breathes. The poor distribution of employees between shifts angers her. “In the morning, I sometimes see beneficiary attendants as far as the eye can see, whereas during the night, I didn’t have any. »

And there is also the fear of contracting COVID-19. Karine Jacques has already had it during the first and third wave. “The second time, I was extremely sick,” she says. I was in bed for two months. I don’t want to catch it yet. »

Health facilities are well aware of the distress.

“Without exceptional contributions like that of Ms. Filiatrault, it would be impossible to get through the different waves of COVID-19,” said the CEO of the CISSS de Laval, Christian Gagné.

There are hundreds of kind-hearted people who, like her, agree to put aside their daily work to go where the need arises. We must pay homage to them and recognize their keen sense of duty and their boundless self-sacrifice.

Christian Gagné, CEO of the CISSS de Laval

At the CISSS de Lanaudière, we recognize “the impacts and pressure caused by the pandemic on staff members, particularly in recent weeks with the increase in the number of daily cases”. Several efforts are being made “to try to reduce these impacts on the teams”, writes spokesperson Pascale Lamy.

At the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, “very sensitive” to the situation of nurses, “several intensive steps are underway to recruit staff and support nursing staff”, writes the spokesperson. Jocelyne Boudreault. For example, staff have been hired to relieve nurses of their administrative tasks.


More than 4,000 nurses resigned in the public network between March and December 2020, 43% more than the year before, revealed data compiled by The Press the last.

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