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Maas is a labour and delivery nurse on the maternity unit at Abbotsford Regional Hospital where she has worked since starting nursing in 2010. She’s been a BCNU steward since 2015 and has served as the occupational health and safety (OHS) rep on the BCNU Fraser Valley regional executive since 2019.

Stella Jacura started nursing in 2016 following a career as a care aide that began in 2013. She’s worked on medical-surgical units and in residential care. For the past two-and-a-half years, she’s worked on the surgical inpatient unit at Chilliwack General Hospital.

Jacura has been a BCNU steward since she began nursing. She sits alongside Maas on the BCNU Fraser Valley region executive and currently serves as her region’s mental health rep. “I’m learning as I go. I’ve known Natalie for about two years, and we’ve really been able to mesh our portfolios together well,” she reports. “I think we’re doing great things in our region so far and really trying to advocate for nurses.”

The OHS reps and mental health reps in all of BCNU’s 16 regions are elected positions on every region’s seven-person executive. They are responsible for supporting worksite stewards and Joint Occupation Health and Safety Committee members in the work they do to ensure health employers follow workplace safety rules. They also encourage advocacy and activism around identified areas of concern, such as violence in the workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought occupational health and safety concerns to the forefront. The shortage of personal protective equipment at the beginning of the health emergency saw Maas and Jacura coordinating support from the wider community to help keep nurses safe.

“Early on, people were scared of bringing COVID back to their families,” says Maas. “Stella and our executive team reached out to people who could sew and who were interested in donating fabric and materials, and we had hundreds of scrub caps and laundry bags made and I think we got a scrub cap or two given out to most of our members who needed them,” she reports.

“Fraser Valley region steward-at-large Meg McCusker has a sewing group,” says Jacura. “She reached out to us and did an amazing job providing masks for everyone.

“My mom’s a retired nurse and BCNU activist and she was crocheting ear savers,” says Jacura. “And we didn’t just give them to nurses, we gave them to anybody on the floor. It was ‘hey, you’re a unit clerk or you’re a care aide, grab one!’ We wanted to support everybody in the health-care team.”

Today, the need to protect nurses’ mental health is more critical than ever, especially in the face of an unending pandemic that has seen a growing number of members report increased anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and moral distress.

“When COVID hit it really put mental health issues at the forefront,” notes Jacura, who says the challenging conditions only serve to underscore the existing OHS concerns around burnout and stress members in her region were already feeling.

Prior to the arrival of COVID, Maas and Jacura had been planning in-person events and activities to engage and support members. But public health restrictions required them to get creative. “We worked together to put on a virtual annual engagement dinner,” Jacura reports. “We gave away a spin membership for a month and we really tried to do events that connected nurses on Zoom, like group yoga, because so many people were isolated going to work and not having that connection with each other that we used to get in person.”

“For us, members getting involved is the key to workplace resilience.”

As 2020 rolled into 2021, Maas and Jacura continued coordinating their support efforts. “We tackled things together as a team and approached challenges from all angles to figure out how we could work best together.”

Those efforts culminated in a hugely successful annual regional education day that the two organized in April 2021. The event hosted 90 Fraser Valley region members.

“That was really a beautiful experience,” says Maas. “We had 16 registered counsellors come and provide small group therapy sessions. And we found that the support groups were essential to meeting nurses where they were at after spending more than a year of meeting the needs of the public during the pandemic.”

She says the counsellors created a non-judgmental, safe and warm environment where each attendee felt free to share their story. “One nurse told us that throughout the pandemic their feelings and concerns had been dismissed, but they now felt heard. They were feeling acknowledged, and they left the day feeling renewed, validated, lighter and encouraged. It was amazing.”

Maas says she and Jacura are planning a similar event for 2022. In the meantime, she’s grateful for the ongoing support of the wider health-care community. “Many of the counsellors donated their time for free and also provided free follow-up counselling services to education day attendees, which was awesome to see; they didn’t just come and drop in for two hours and then leave nurses hanging after they’d opened up to them, so that was really helpful.”

It’s clear that Maas and Jacura are helping to build resilient workplaces by advocating for nurses’ psychological health and safety. And both are well suited to the task.

“I’ve struggled with mental health both personally and within my family so it’s something that’s very close to home,” says Jacura. “And to be able to advocate for those nurses who are also struggling and connect them with resources is very important to me. I’ve overcome a lot of things myself and now I’m able to function and hold down a job, and I want other nurses to be able to do that as well and know how to find help when they need it.

“In this career, it is too often ‘go go go’ and you take care of yourself last. You carry on because you’ve got patients and your own health is always on the backburner.”

She confesses she struggled at first to make the role her own but says she was excited when Maas joined the Fraser Valley executive. “OHS and mental health go hand-in-hand, so it’s been great to work together with her.”

Maas says she’s motivated by the priority BCNU has placed on psychological health and safety. “I’m really excited by that aspect of the OHS rep role and its connection to mental health. And as Stella noted, in order to care for other people, you must be able to care for yourself first.”

Looking to the year ahead, Maas and Jacura hope to continue promoting workplace resilience by calling on members to report all injures to workplace health. That includes incidents of violence and mental injury. “We’re really trying to push education around reporting,” Jacura reports. “Natalie and I have an OHS-mental health presentation we give at meetings in our region.”

“Our goal is to foster a culture of safety where nurses feel that they can report so that we can focus on prevention and address workplace violence proactively,” says Maas.