L-R: Slobodanka Antic, Justin Young, Jeniqua Gribben
The UHN Rest Safe Program, which provided 18,000 nights of free hotel accommodations to more than 1,000 staff, was run by (L to R) Slobodanka Antic, Justin Young and Jeniqua Gribben. (Photo: UHN)

For registered nurse (RN) Sue Boparai, it meant a restful sleep – and one less thing to worry about.

Sue, an RN with the Nursing Resource Team at Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals, was often faced with an unreliable commute outside the GTA when she picked up extra shifts in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). It was a continual stressor on top of the anxiety of working in healthcare during a pandemic.

Enter the UHN Rest Safe hoteling program. Launched in spring 2020, it provided staff a place to stay in-between intensive and stressful shifts while limiting the risk of bringing COVID-19 home to their families and loved ones.

"The program alleviated some of the stress that I felt, and allowed me to move at my own pace," says Sue. "It's definitely opened my eyes to the importance of sleep and rest between shifts, and allowed me to focus on recharging my body."

"I think we forget that we need to put ourselves first and get adequate amounts of rest to 'recharge,' especially when working under the restrictions and challenges the pandemic has brought."

During the pandemic, TeamUHN members have been on the frontlines of an overwhelmed healthcare system. Many placed their personal lives and well-being on hold to provide continuous patient care and help keep hospitals running.

Rest Safe, which closed last month, provided 18,000 nights of free hotel accommodations to more than 1,000 staff. These included nurses, physicians, Environmental Services and Transportation employees, and administrators working in ICUs, Emergency Departments and units facing COVID-19 outbreaks, staffing shortages and increased work demands.

"At the start of the pandemic, when UHN was considering ways to support TeamUHN, the Rest Safe program was developed as a means of addressing concerns staff had about infecting immunocompromised family members," says Justin Young, Director of Business Development and Partnerships at UHN, who was redeployed to help design the program.

Over the past two years, the program operated three sessions at downtown Toronto hotels, all corresponding with COVID-19 waves.

"This program was funded entirely by philanthropy," Justin says. "Without the generous support of the UHN Foundation and The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, this offering would not have been possible."

Accommodating TeamUHN during 'snowmageddon'

The program has helped staff cope with the mental and physical challenges of working in healthcare during COVID-19.

For many on the frontlines, long commutes and lack of sleep have been a contributing factors to burnout. With staff working even more hours during the pandemic waves, the hoteling program offered the respite support for an overnight stay a short walking distance from the hospital.

Slobodanka Antic and Jeniqua Gribben worked tirelessly behind the scenes at Rest Safe. Originally colleagues at Princess Margaret Lodge, the redeployed pair ensured every staff member who requested a hotel room, got one.

"You work as long as there are requests," says Slobodanka, Manager of the program, on the unconventional work hours and influx of staff requests. "This is not someone coming for vacation.

"Hotels are the same as hospitals – 24/7."

One of the busiest days for the team occurred during the major snowstorm in late January, which shut down the city. That day, Slobodanka and Jeniqua received about 200 emails from staff looking for a place to stay.

"The public transit system in my region was impacted quite a bit, and many trains were cancelled​," says Sue. "The Rest Safe Program was honestly heaven-sent as I was a 10-minute walk away from work, and no longer had to worry about my commute."

Due to the busy nature of the healthcare system, the adjustment to living with COVID has been far from easy. The fear of exposing family members or loved ones has been a consistent theme for many utilizing the Rest Safe program.

"It's allowed me to show up, be present, and engage fully with my colleagues and patients," says Sue.

Jeniqua, the program's coordinator, says she heard comments like Sue's continuously.

"Everybody was so thankful that it was available, and that the donors were able to do it for a third time," Jeniqua says. "They wanted to do the best for the staff."

The Rest Safe team received hundreds of inquiries throughout the three waves of the pandemic and heard the many trying stories of TeamUHN, their fears and experiences.

"You don't know the staff personally, but you feel like you know them anyway," says Slobodanka. "In the end, we're all part of the same team."

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