Nursing has been in a state of crisis for years now. Turnover is through the roof, and nursing school new admissions aren’t coming close to covering the losses. Hospitals all over the country are struggling to keep up with the demand. Nurses commonly report that they are “one highway pile up away,” from being completely overwhelmed.
Not only does this put a significant strain on the nurses who do stick around, but it also means that the communities they serve are at risk of not having the medical resources they need.
It’s a big deal. In this article, we look at all sides of the issue and try to pinpoint a solution that may help stave off the worst of the nursing crisis.
Earlier this year, a Washington nurse made national headlines for calling 911 on the job. The situation wasn’t a violent patient or an unruly scene in the waiting room. It was a chaos of a much plainer, more common sort.
There were too many people at the hospital, and not enough staff there to take care of them. The five nurses on duty were already overwhelmed by the full beds. They didn’t have a spare moment to process the 45 people in the waiting room, let alone take care of them.
The dispatcher sent over an ambulance full of available help and the situation eventually calmed down. For the nurse who made the call, it was another day in their life. A chaotic shift made slightly better by a little extra help.
But it circulated in national media because it rang true for so many other healthcare professionals. Nurses from everywhere wrote in to express their understanding of the situation. Their appreciation for how the charge nurse on duty handled it.
Nursing is always a hard job, but right now it’s a little bit harder. The United States is in the middle of a nursing shortage that has been a long time coming. For years, experts have been warning about the moment we now find ourselves in.
To say that Covid is to blame is short-sighted and incomplete. While the pandemic did exacerbate the problem, the true issue is more systemic. Nursing is very hard. For that very reason, people have been steadily leaving the profession for many years, and not enough people have been coming up through nursing school to replace them.
To truly solve the problem of nursing burnout, the healthcare industry needs to not only help current nurses but also make itself more approachable for people who might be interested in a career in nursing.
Why do nurses get burnt out
Several things make nursing a challenging career path. Some of the issues can be massaged away. Others are built into the job.
- Long shifts. Nursing shifts are typically twelve hours long. This is for the convenience of the staffing manager. Hospitals need to be open 24/7. It’s hard enough filling those hours as it is. The more shifts they have to manage, the trickier it gets. So, they divide the day in half. While it may be logistically challenging to implement shorter, more frequent shifts, it’s an option worth considering.
- Compensation. While nurses aren’t usually poorly paid, they aren’t at the top of the hospital salary food chain either. In fact, many floor nurses find that they can actually make more money working easier jobs, like cosmetic nursing.
- It’s emotionally challenging work. People go to the hospital because they are sick, or because someone they care about is sick. Seeing life at its very worst can be emotionally draining. While there is no way to make nursing easier from an emotional perspective, hospitals can make sure that their employees have access to the resources they need to take care of their emotional health.
- Night shifts. Night shifts put the nurses who work them on a completely different schedule than everyone else in their life. It’s hard to go to bed when your family is waking up. While it isn’t possible to do away with the night shift, hospitals can work to ensure more equitable scheduling policies. Small efforts can have a big impact when it comes to boosting morale.
With time and effort, it may be possible to change the hospital work culture to focus on retention and employee health and wellness. It will take time and difficult decision-making, but it is worth the effort.
Unfortunately, the most challenging aspect of nursing is fundamentally untouchable. No amount of goodwill can change the fact that the job is physically and emotionally draining. Even on their best days, nurses are interacting with people as they go through some of the hardest moments of their lives.
It should be hard. The emotional aspect of the job can help nurses to produce an empathetic response which is vital to comprehensive, high-quality care.
However, when pushed to its limits, even this empathetic response may begin to ebb as the nurse experiences what is called “compassion fatigue.”
Even with well-intended administrative intervention, some nurses will inevitably find that the emotionally draining aspect of the work makes them want to pursue a different line of work.
For the people who do find that they have the right disposition for healthcare, hospital systems will need to up their support considerably to maintain retention.
The suggestions featured above are a good place to start. However, true change should be fluid and bespoke. Listen to what your staff is saying. Try your best to address those specific pain points as well as you can. And regularly refresh your efforts. The job’s challenges may change over time. Ideally, hospital policy will evolve and change with them.
Sometimes just listening can have a big impact. It’s probably not going to be possible to meet every nurse’s request. However, people working in every sector of employment consistently report that even feeling like their employer is listening to them can be enough to boost their satisfaction and productivity.
The world needs nurses. It’s on hospitals and universities to make sure that we have them in abundance in the years to come.
Adam Mulligan, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.