March 11 began year three of the COVID-19 pandemic as declared by the World Health Organization. This global crisis has taken its toll in suffering, economic distress and over 6 million lives lost.
As the vanguard of the pandemic response, nurses continue to face unrelenting and long-standing challenges. Healthcare leaders in every setting must sustain solutions to support and retain their nursing workforce. The delivery of quality and equitable patient care today and post-pandemic depends on leaders’ actions now.
The American Nurses Foundation has released a new survey of nearly 12,000 nurses detailing the impact of COVID-19. The top-line conclusion: Nurses are struggling from the strain and stress of the pandemic. They are exhausted, overworked and feel undervalued. These words come from at least half of nurses surveyed about their pandemic experiences. More than 1 in 3 nurses in the foundation’s survey chose the word “angry”. Given all that nurses have experienced and lost, they have every right to feel that way. WHO estimates that from January 2020 to May 2021, 115,000 healthcare workers died from COVID-19. When we don’t protect nurses, we dishonor the legacy of nurses who have died, and those who are still responding to COVID-19.
Nurses at all levels feel let down. According to a new study, 75% of hospital-based chief nursing executives and 64% of those based in health systems say they are “stressed” and “dissatisfied.” While leading during the pandemic, the top three challenges were staffing, burnout and turnover. Nurse leaders have demonstrated unwavering loyalty to nurses and a steadfast commitment to providing high-quality patient care. They have successfully led interprofessional teams through one of the most difficult times in nursing’s history, but they are not immune to the deep-seated impact of COVID-19 and must have support systems from their organizations to sustain nursing excellence.
Before the pandemic, nurses’ working conditions were already high-risk and unsustainable due to injuries on the job, exposure to infectious diseases, staffing concerns and many other stressors. One of the most disturbing issues for nurses is an increase in workplace violence, particularly in intensive-care units and emergency departments. This is all compounded by the sad reality that younger nurses, the future of our nursing workforces, are experiencing more of the negative impacts of the pandemic. Among nurses under age 25, 69% say they have been suffering from burnout, which is substantially more than those older than 25 (49%). Additionally, nurses under 25 (47%) and nurses 25-34 (46%) consider themselves not or not at all emotionally healthy compared with nurses over age 55 (19%).
Leaders must do everything within their power to retain nurses. Limiting the challenges solely to the “supply” or “shortage” of nurses is a narrow vantage. This isn’t just a “numbers” issue. Nurses are quitting their jobs because of unchecked work environment challenges.