Exhausted nurses are being refused holiday leave due to understaffing, with intensive care nurses who battled through the Covid-19 outbreak particularly impacted.
Healthcare workers now worry that they may face into a long winter, and a possible second coronavirus wave, burnt out and unable to perform optimally.
Tony Fitzpatrick, Director of Industrial Relations with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said that his organisation has encountered this issue “with several members."
"ICUs need to remain fully staffed, but this will always need to be balanced with the need for staff to take leave,” he said.
“Without leave, it will be impossible to avoid burnout and exhaustion, which is bad for patients and staff alike.
"That's why it's so important to get safe staffing levels - staff cannot feel under pressure when they need a much-deserved break. The HSE need to recruit additional staff to avoid additional unnecessary pressure.”
Dr Ray Walley, a Dublin GP, Vice President of the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME) and former Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) President, said that one ICU nurse he knows is quitting her job because she can't take a holiday.
"We need to be sensible in this and value what we’ve got or we’ll end up with more holes in the system and that’s bad management," he said.
"We need proper management with managers ensuring that people are getting time off so that they don’t burn out. This is a health and safety risk and if the healthcare system is going to abuse its staff, it’s going to find it difficult to get staff.
"The Health and Safety Authority may need to look at this if employers are not going to stand up and be counted."
Dr Walley knows of "emotionally exhausted" ICU nurses who have worked 50 and 60 hour weeks on average yet their leave was declined due to a "shortage of replacements."
He was also told by Infection Control Nurses "who have worked tirelessly" through the pandemic that they too were denied holiday leave.
Dr Walley told the Irish Examiner that staff shortages, already visible before Covid-19, were further magnified by the crisis.
“People I know who work in these units [ICU and Infection Control] have found it difficult to access time off. But it isn’t unique to them."
Dr Walley warned that without holidays and "something to look forward to" healthcare staff would be more likely to suffer stress and burn-out and would then require longer periods off work to recover.
"We need management to manage holidays now. Because the potential winter ahead is September through to April next year," he said.
"Unfortunately the Irish system has a history of not treating its personnel well.
"About one year ago, there was a study about stress levels in healthcare, it was pre-Covid. And it found that 30-40% of healthcare practitioners were stressed.
"A big part of stress is when you don’t have control over your environment and part of that is being able to take holidays. So stress levels are only going to get worse," Dr Walley warned.
Speaking in the Dáil today, Denis Naughten pointed out that now is the time to recognise the commitment of doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants.
“I believe the very minimum we should offer them is additional paid leave,” he said.
“This week it has been agreed that Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan is to be awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City of Dublin. An honour he rightly deserves.
"Together with the now Tánaiste and the now Minister for Further and Higher Education, he was the steady hand we needed as we navigated our way through the pandemic and the nation drew reassurance from his calm demeanour during his daily briefings," he added.
“I believe the time is now right to also recognise the work of all frontline health workers. Many of our doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants placed themselves at risk to go to work every day to keep us safe and to care for those who were seriously ill."