Medical Workers Call It Quits amid Pandemic Pressure in Japan

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Psychotherapist Hanae Sone is seen at the Center Hospital of the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 2.

Nurses and medical workers have been quitting in droves amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.

Tough working conditions, the high risk of infection, inadequate pay and virus-linked discrimination are thought to be among the reasons for the exodus, with one hospital losing more than 30 members of staff.

“The constant strain of wondering when I would be infected was too heavy a burden,” said a nurse in her 40s who resigned in August from a position at a hospital that accepts coronavirus patients in northern Japan.

She had joined the hospital in April as it allowed her to easily adjust her work schedule so that she could look after her nursery school-age son. Initially, she was assigned to work part-time as an outpatient nurse but was reassigned to assist in coronavirus testing when cases began to increase.

After a fellow nurse was infected with the virus, she started wearing goggles and a mask, and avoided talking in the break room, but she could not shake the fear of infection. The hospital apparently refused to let her take a PCR test when she asked. Thoughtless comments during stressful situations from some patients, such as “Stay away from me. I don’t want to get infected,” only worsened her depression.

Although her workload increased, her hourly wage was unchanged at about ¥1,400. A special hazard allowance for frontline workers was as little as about ¥14,000 a month. “I wasn’t prepared to risk my life and that of my family members without adequate pay,” she said.

Hospitals that treat coronavirus patients have been worst affected by resignations.

Ten doctors and 22 nurses and assistant nurses had resigned from Osaka City Juso Hospital as of the end of November.

The hospital, which was designated in May as a medical institution to treat moderate COVID-19 patients, resumed outpatient treatments in some departments in July but doctors and nurses continued to quit, with some complaining about the heavy workload, and others about not being able to treat patients in their fields of specialty.

A private hospital in Tokyo also lost several nurses due to infection fears, among other reasons, and other hospitals have reported workers taking leaves of absence.

In a survey conducted in August by the Japan Federation of Medical Worker’s Unions on 120 hospitals and other medical facilities, 20% of the facilities reported cases of discriminatory treatment or harassment against their employees. In some cases, beauty salons have refused to serve medical workers and day care centers have refused to look after their children.

Some hospitals have been making efforts to support staff during these challenging times.

The Center Hospital of the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, has created a pamphlet for medical workers and patients about mental wellbeing. The pamphlet includes advice such as the importance of speaking to others and sharing when going through hard times.

Workers at the hospital are also able to consult with clinical psychologists. “The importance of mental care is increasing as the harsh conditions have continued for so long,” said Hanae Sone, 33, a psychotherapist at the hospital.

The Jikei University Daisan Hospital in Komae, Tokyo, has set up free dormitories for employees who are worried about the risk of infecting family members with the virus. The hospital is also reviewing work procedures to ensure workers do not have to shoulder excessive burdens. “I want people to understand that medical staff are working hard despite their anxieties,” said Kazuo Tanii, 44, a doctor at the hospital’s psychiatric neurology department.

Tsukuba University associate professor Sho Takahashi, who specializes in disaster and community psychiatry, said: “When family members complain that relatives did not receive adequate end-of-life care due to the coronavirus crisis, or when people make discriminatory remarks, medical workers with a strong sense of responsibility can become mentally depressed. Hospitals must understand the needs of their staff and create comfortable working environments.”