Rethinking work in the time of COVID-19

Rethinking work in the time of COVID-19

On March 13, every aspect of our lives changed overnight. Our professional life and family/work balance were turned upside down, with our social life put on hold. Having to contend with a radical reorganization of our work is now a daily challenge. Could we dare to hope for positive changes that will endure?

While the world is being put on hold, the health crisis has precipitated new forms of work organization that are being hastily implemented. No one is spared the impact of all these technology-assisted transformations. The already porous boundaries between our professional life and personal life are more blurred than ever.

Before the pandemic, pressure was running exceptionally high in the workplace. This was especially true in Québec’s public healthcare system, left in shambles by a series of reforms, budget cuts, and “optimization” measures. Who knew that our collective awareness would be raised by a virus originating so far away? We have now been forced to stop and think. Is there any hope that this collective realization induced by the pandemic might be sustained over time and be of benefit to workers, including professional and technical personnel?

COVID-19 has forced our society to review its priorities and weigh its choices between public health and economic imperatives. The measures that were taken from the outset garnered support from a large segment of the population, but with the extension of these measures, real debate is imperative as new findings and conclusions are emerging.

Québec’s initial crisis management measures gave the impression that we were an example to follow, and our leaders believed they were in control of the situation. But as professionals working in the public sector, our members knew that the system was pushed to the limit, with no leeway whatsoever. The effects of labour shortages, long denounced by unions and various community organizations, finally hit the front page when the virus made its way into long-term care centres.

The acute distress of the system is a reality that can no longer be dismissed as merely a bargaining chip used by unions: people are dying and these deaths are being counted every day.

As the crisis drags on and the situation remains uncertain in Montréal, our political leaders and managers in health and social services have been forced to respond and finally consider ideas that have been proposed to them for years. But old habits die hard: the government would rather impose these ideas by ministerial order than discuss them and carry out consultations through joint working committees. And the clarity of the message once again gets lost between the politicians and the managers on the ground.

Workforce shortages and forced reassignments

An unprecedented procedure to redirect resources and services away from certain sectors and reassign professionals to work in other sectors has been imposed with one goal in mind: to put out the pandemic fires burning in CHSLDs. To finally address this overlooked sector, other needs are now being neglected, including youth services, mental health care, rehabilitation, and treatment for addicts or cancer patients. A number of reassigned professionals feel that their skills aren’t being put to proper use; to make matters worse, they’re being forced to cope with work realities that they’re completely unprepared for. As a result of these pressures, they no longer find meaning in their work and a sense of powerlessness sets in. Burnout is the next stage.

As if this weren’t bad enough, we continue to be short-staffed. The government is trying to set up work incentives like the hazard premiums and pay increases. Once again, though, by not taking the time to consult people or listen, it shows how little it knows about the situation. Its idea that the reign of silence in the system might be lifted by giving employees an email address where they can send their comments is a very clear indication that the government doesn’t understand the issues.

That’s how the government ended up offering premiums and salary top-ups that apply to some but not all of the professions concerned, which created divisions among workers. It goes without saying that beneficiary attendants and nurses are essential. But there are other professions that are equally essential in the current emergency.

All too often, Class 4 employees work quietly behind the scenes and go unnoticed.

Some may say that the premier and the minister of health and social services have, in fact, expressed their thanks to people working in laboratories, medical imaging, and psychosocial services. But the time has come for our political leaders to express their gratitude in a more coherent way. Appreciation has to be expressed monetarily as well as by recognizing employees’ specific expertise. And what about their right to take some time off, especially during the summer?

Another strategy of the government to offset staff shortages is to speed up negotiations with medical associations about reserved acts that could be performed by APTS members. For years (in fact decades), we have been driving home the message that APTS members have the expert knowledge required to perform certain acts that are reserved for physicians. Until now, the government’s response has been that this is a thorny issue and solutions are difficult to put into practice. Now, given the health crisis, things are suddenly moving quickly and everything is simpler. Let’s hope we’ll find the same “openness” when the time comes for implementation and review.

Crisis and opportunity

The current crisis is a source of disruption and negative consequences, but it also provides fertile ground for rethinking the meaning of work and how it is organized. Above all, it is a unique opportunity for unions, and especially professional unions, to develop and enhance their role by demanding not only decent working conditions but also acceptable conditions of practice and a space for dialogue between managers and professionals.

Everyone is talking about “the organization of work” these days, but the real experts are the employees who meet the needs of sick people every day, and those who represent them and have an overall view of professional issues. Whether or not professionals belong to a professional order, they are still professionals who have a code of conduct to follow and ethical obligations to meet. What’s more, professional orders call on their members to be proactive and engage in open discussions with their managers in order to highlight their skills and obligations.

By Julie Desrosiers | June 18, 2020

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