Growing discontent among frontline health care workers on Vancouver Island

Comments from an internal forum show employees pushing back against claims of workplace excellence
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After a manager at Vancouver Island Health Authority posted on an internal forum post that the organization had won a “top employer” award, front-line workers responded with disbelief, showing a wide disconnect between how employees perceive their workplace and how the health authority is promoted publicly.

“This award shines a light on the wonderful teams and work environments at Island Health,” wrote Island Health President and CEO Kathy MacNeil in the statement shared in an internal employee forum on February 15. The health authority, which is the largest employer on Vancouver Island, was named one of BC’s top 100 employers, an annual award curated and promoted by Toronto-based Mediacorp Canada Inc. which claims to have an audience of 15 million per year.

“Island Health has been one of the most corrupt, punitive, emotionally and mentally damaging workplaces I have ever been in.”

Screenshots of employees’ responses to this award, seen by Ricochet, showcase their disbelief, as they shared their own contradicting and often negative experiences of working at the health authority. Respondents pointed to a recent employee engagement survey whose results — released nearly a month before the award was announced — that contradict some of the claims in the award.

“Island Health has been one of the most corrupt, punitive, emotionally and mentally damaging workplaces I have ever been in,” wrote one employee. “Publishing this article shows that the employee survey was completely ignored.”

“This is the very reason why there is a disconnect between employer and employee. As [an] employee I don’t believe any of this. Quite funny,” wrote another.

The experiences on Vancouver Island and employee surveys signalling dissatisfaction mirror those of health care workers across Canada, according to recent reports.

A survey of 5,000 health care sector employees across the country released last week found that 40 per cent of respondents are considering leaving the field due to worsening mental health, poor working conditions, and resource shortages.

In March, the results of a 4,820-response survey published by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions found the same thing. Nurses were randomly selected to participate from every province and territory. The results showed a quarter are unhappy with their jobs and plan to leave it or the profession entirely.

Poor workplace environments and high volumes of patients were highlighted as two of the biggest reasons.

Victoria General Hospital
Brishti Basu

Joni, who has worked as an ER nurse at several emergency rooms in southern Vancouver Island, was one of about 15 people who weighed in when Island Health management posted the award. Her name has been changed by request to protect against backlash from her employer.

“There's so, so much fear, and just generally if I say anything bad about VIHA and it’s traced back to me, I know they don't care about the staffing shortage,” Joni said. “They will not hesitate to fire me.”

Her assessments match what other staff have said in response to an employee engagement survey initiated by Island Health, whose results have not been released publicly but were partly shared with employees internally in January.

Island Health responded to questions from Ricochet in a statement, saying the pandemic and ongoing staffing challenges are to blame for the “toll on staff morale and their sense of well-being.” Their response also suggests the evaluation for this award was based on workplace conditions at just one facility: a child, youth, and family care centre in Victoria.

Mediacorp Canada Inc. did not respond to several calls and emails with questions from Ricochet.

‘The employer doesn't care about your fatigue’

The top 100 employers’ assessment lauded Island Health for providing onsite childcare for employees—something staff were quick to point out was untrue, in their comments.

After questions from Ricochet about these discrepancies, the health authority clarified that they had filled out an application for this top 100 employers award at the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health in Victoria, which does provide child care options.

“Unfortunately, the information regarding childcare at the site where the application was completed was translated to mean there was childcare accessible at all sites,” the spokesperson for Island Health said in an email. “We have reached out to Mediacorp to ensure this is clarified in their materials, and apologize for any confusion caused. It was unintentional.”

Their response stands by the rest of the claims made in the award — claims that have been contested by employees’ survey responses, staff comments in the internal forum, and confirmed again by Joni in an interview.

The experiences of burned out health care workers on Vancouver Island mirror those of health care workers across Canada.
Jonathan Borba for Unsplash via UBC

One of the main reasons Island Health made the top 100 employers list is the company’s “formal strategy to recognize employee excellence as well as express gratitude for their hard work.”

In contrast, Island Health employees responded to the internal survey by highlighting a lack of recognition from management and regard for their safety at work, as some of the top issues.

“The trends show that employees feel supported by their coworkers and immediate supervisors and feel proud of the work they do, but are communicating serious issues with management and organizational structures,” reads part of the employee engagement report. “Many employees have doubts or simply don’t believe that the organization places importance on their health, safety, and/or well-being.”

“The employer doesn't care about your fatigue,” Joni said, recounting her distress working without a break in overcrowded hospital wards, unable to provide the level of care each patient needed. “I've been at work and on my 13th hour, I'm trying to go home, and I've been begged and pressured to take an unstable, intubated ICU patient on a transfer.”

“They don’t care [about] your own mental, physical, emotional safety or well-being. I feel like they just think of nurses as warm bodies they can check off.”

Though vacation policies were lauded and appear generous, Joni and others have testified that it’s difficult for employees to book time off when they want it.

Ongoing training and development programs, another aspect of working at Island Health that was praised in the award, is also a contentious issue.

“They would not pay for time off for education, so I used vacation hours to take educational courses,” Joni said. “People who already work full time are told to come in on their days off and take these courses which are often full two-day courses.”

“The employer doesn't care about your fatigue... They don’t care [about] your own mental, physical, emotional safety or well-being. I feel like they just think of nurses as warm bodies they can check off.”

These and other issues with Island Health management, like late payments and switching employees’ shifts without informing them, have been brought up in the past, always by nurses and health care staff who had to stay unnamed for fear of backlash at work.

When reached for comment by Ricochet, the BC Nurses’ Union steward for Victoria General Hospital redirected the questions to a media representative for the union, who then declined to comment.

“Our nurses do have to be careful when speaking out, especially if it’s anything critical of their employer,” the spokesperson wrote.

A CTV News investigation in early 2023 found evidence that health care workers are being muzzled through retribution at work — like being marked as troublemakers or facing disciplinary action — across B.C.


After seeing employees’ responses to the top employer award, Island Health took one immediate step to try and smooth things over.

The company’s head of human resources, Kent Flint, took to the comment section to congratulate the health authority and highlighted that the employee engagement survey found staff wanting Island Health to succeed.

“I’m so proud of the work that we do together every day, and I’m proud to work with an organization that seeks the feedback of employees,” Flint wrote.

At a provincial level, there are some promising solutions in the works.

In March, the BC Nurses Union reached a tentative contract with the province that would make BC the first in Canada to introduce a mandatory nurse-to-patient ratio through a new staffing model.

Mandating the number of patients each nurse is expected to attend to will “result in better patient outcomes, better working conditions for nurses, and will have a positive impact on our nurse recruitment and retention strategies,” wrote BCNU president Aman Grewal in the announcement on April 4.

The model is set to be rolled out over the next three years with an investment of $750 million. Other recruitment and retention efforts to keep BC health care settings staffed have included announcements to pay international nurses’ accreditation fees, establish ways for them to get trained faster, and pay for nurses to get retrained and return to the workforce.

These announcements have been widely lauded, but they come too late for Joni who, like others in her field, is considering leaving the ER.

“I used to have energy; now I go home and I fall asleep on the couch before I can even make dinner, so I know it's really affecting me physically and mentally,” she said. “I might not leave nursing but I will definitely leave the ER and bedside nursing eventually.”

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