Stress, trauma, and burnout: Vancouver nonprofits warn the fentanyl crisis has pushed them to a breaking point

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      Nonprofit staff on the front lines of Vancouver’s response to the fentanyl crisis have reached an intolerable point of burnout, a new report warns.

      “Staff and volunteers are directly impacted, either dealing with overdoses at their locations or nearby, or tracking their clients and being vigilant to be sure the people they serve are still alive,” reads the report by Central City Foundation. “This is causing immense trauma to these front line workers and is having a huge impact on operations.

      “Organizations report trouble finding and keeping staff, facing greater costs and more difficult operations because they have increased workloads and higher incidences of sick leave,” it continues. “Staff are burning out faster as they must respond to the crisis on top of their regular jobs and this has a direct impact on the organizations’ bottom line.”

      Central City Foundation prepared the report during the summer of 2017. The authors interviewed 29 leaders and employees at 21 nonprofit organizations in downtown Vancouver. They include people who work at health-care facilities, homeless shelters, supportive-housing sites, and social-service agencies.

      The authors found that 71 percent of organizations said the opioid crisis has a “direct impact” on staff while an additional 29 percent reported the effects are felt indirectly but are “still highly significant”. That is, fully 100 percent of nonprofit organizations approached said they were struggling with B.C.’s sharp rise in overdose deaths.

      “Their staff are significantly impacted, and their organizations are having to adapt and stretch to meet the needs of the crisis as best they can,” the report states.

      The document presents many voices from Vancouver nonprofits.

      Several spoke of a heightened sense of constant tension.

      “I think it’s really stressful because we have women who sleep on the couches,” said Vanessa Smith, a shelter manager who works for the Downtown Eastside’ Women’s Centre. “Now we are hyper vigilant about checking them every five minutes and women who go into the washroom that we have to check on. I think it’s kind of made everything a lot more tense.”

      “You find them sleeping, and you have to check their breathing,” said Emi Tomioka, an administrative assistant who also works for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.

      “One of my staff told me a while ago, they are scared of the phone ringing now because they have had too many people call them to say somebody has died,” said Calum Scott of Family Services of Greater Vancouver.

      Others quoted in the report describe the logistical challenges that such added burdens have imposed on their organizations.

      “Let’s say an overdose happens in the drop in and they are reviving somebody,” said Mebrat Beyene of Wish Drop-In Centre. “By the time the paramedics attend and leave again, the staff still have to finish their shift. There is no time to debrief and there is no time or money for paid time off, which really is what you should get in that kind of incident. We are definitely going to see clear PTSD-type symptoms in this community both for workers and neighbours. It’s almost too normal and that’s alarming.”

      Calum Scott of Family Services of Greater Vancouver warned that staffing has become an issue.

      “We are experiencing more sick time from staff, more stress leaves, more staff who are not having fun at work,” he said. “At some point, we are going to have to have some changes because we are not going to have anybody on the front line to do the work.”

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      This year B.C. is on track for more than 1,400 illicit-drug overdose deaths. That’s up from 985 the previous year, 519 in 2015, and 369 the year before that. In 2017, more than 80 percent of deaths have been associated with the synthetic-opioid fentanyl.

      The report notes that while the province and regional health authorities have allocated additional funding for the opioid crisis, very little of that money has gone to nonprofit organizations that don’t technically work in overdose response but which now find their staff responding to overdoses on a routine basis.

      Vancouver Coastal Health has set aside $70,000 for the sort of nonprofit’s discussed in the report, it notes, and the City of Vancouver has similarly made $600,000 available.

      A message from Central City Foundation president and CEO Jennifer Johnston calls for more funding for community groups.

      “We must direct assets and resources to these front line organizations, and bring more attention to the people who have been so very impacted by this crisis,” Johnston wrote.