RNAO hears about COVID-19: A heart-to-heart dialogue for nurses

RNAO’s bi-weekly open forums serve as a heart-to-heart dialogue for nurses looking to share their experiences and challenges during this pandemic. I thank Victoria Alarcon, Communications Specialist at RNAO, for writing the following synopsis of our webinar series.

For an Ontario retired nurse, COVID-19 has affected her in many ways. “(I feel) guilty about not jumping back into the frontlines and not having the stamina for it.”

Another nurse shared her frustration with the pandemic: “What I’ve found difficult with COVID-19 on my mental health is that, especially in the beginning… (it was) all everyone talked about (on the radio, TV, and social media)… My brain needed a break from all the COVID talk.”

These nurses are not alone in how they feel as more than 180 participants have joined RNAO for its bi-weekly open forums to talk about how they are feeling during COVID-19.  The open forum series entitled Continuing the conversation – an open forum for nurses to share how they’re feeling during COVID-19 provides nurses across Ontario – especially those working on the frontlines – an opportunity to talk about how the pandemic is affecting their mental health and well-being at this challenging time.

Coordinated by RNAO’s Open Forum Planning Committee – Debra Lefebrvre, mental wellbeing specialist; Sara Fung and Amie Archibald-Varley, co-hosts of Gritty Nurse Podcast; and Breanna Martin and Maija Solo, co-hosts of What’s Beeping? A nursing podcast – the forums come after the passing of a young RN named Stefanie Van Nguyen who brought to light just how important mental health is for nurses and other health-care professionals during the pandemic.

For a long time, RNAO has advocated for mental health resources for nurses and in January 2019 launched with other health-care organizations the Nurses’ Health Program to help address the mental health needs of nurses. In addition, since the beginning of the pandemic, RNAO initiated the #TogetherWeCanDoIt campaign and created a COVID-19 portal to provide support for health providers and other essential services who are tackling COVID-19. Now in the 12th month of the pandemic, RNAO has launched an open forum series as an outlet for nurses to feel camaraderie and heart-to-heart support.

“These open forums are a conversation about the heart and ensuring we are there for one another and… for others who have not been able to join the conversation that we reach out to them,” said RNAO CEO, Doris Grinspun. “We want to make sure no one feels alone in this long journey that we are all going through together.”

On Feb. 3 for the first open forum, nurses from different sectors and regions shared their experiences over the last few months, sharing their grief over multiple deaths, the stress and fatigue from long shifts and their frustration about their inability to speak out to media. “Nursing is political. There are so many of us with a collective voice,” said Archibald-Varley, co-host of the Gritty Nurse Podcast. “There’s a lot of concerns, but we have to be political and have to speak up about the issues that mean the most to us.” Grinspun added that “life is political” and that we can either sit on the sidelines and not complain or participate in the process and shape it.

During the forum, several nurses also gave tips and resources for mental health, sharing the different ways they are combating stress and burnout. One nurse shared that she has been taking Zoom painting lessons while another talked about dedicating time to weight lifting and pets.

Continuing the conversation on Feb. 17, Grinspun moderated the second open forum which focused on the topics that nurses had highlighted in the first one: dealing with multiple losses, learning to let go (time out from COVID), taking care of yourself and organizational support for well-being.

Participants were split into breakout rooms and had a chance to speak with one another about their experiences relevant to the four topics. In one breakout room, a nurse shared how she was able to overcome the loss of her position in the hospital and open her own practice as an RN psychotherapist. Through this new position, she has been able to help clients through the challenges of the pandemic and be inspired by them. “The resilience that I see from my clients is amazing and gives me strength.”

For another nurse, she shared how working in the hospital and seeing her patients unable to receive visits from their essential care givers was saddening. “I see tremendous sadness and despair and those individuals share their losses with me. For me, that is a big challenge.”

On the topic of learning to let go, nurses shared how they are balancing their lives despite the impact the pandemic is having on everyone. “With this whole COVID thing, it’s better to just turn it all off and take a break from it,” shared one nurse who limits her time talking about COVID-19 with her family and colleagues. Another suggested turning off the news and spending time with family to get a break from reality.

When it came to the topic of self-care, many shared how it was important to spend time meditating and finding a way to say no. “I’m on call so often, it’s just a matter of saying no sometimes.”

Others mentioned strategies such as meditation, boxed breathing, singing a song, or reading funny jokes and positive messages. “It can be a mantra (or) some positive message you can keep in mind for the day.”

For organizational support, nurses said one of the most helpful ways to support staff is by giving them the ability to vent and freely talk about their frustrations. “Giving staff the ability to vent is a huge need.” Others noted that their organization has led the way by providing yoga classes, nutritional classes or mental-health related webinars to help with emotional and well-being support.

Despite the many challenges COVID-19 has brought, a majority of participants shared at the end that these forums have become a supportive environment for them to talk about their concerns and thoughts. Many shared they look forward to attending another one. “Let’s continue to hold hearts and hands and learn together how we can support one another,” said Grinspun.

RNAO invites all nurses to join us for our next webinar on March 3, 2021 at 2:30 p.m. (Registration to open soon).