Nurses are integral to the healthcare system, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left hospitals struggling to provide adequate care due to a shortage of qualified nurses. Experts estimate that there are currently 150,000 fewer nurses in the workforce than are needed. Burnout from increased patient loads is one of the primary reasons for the shortage. Nurses often face unsustainable demands at work, and without proper support from their employers, they may end up exhausted, hopeless about their ability to make a difference for patients, and unable to provide the quality of care they know they could otherwise. Hospitals and policymakers must work together to create healthier workplaces for nurses and support their mental health by ensuring safe staffing ratios.
The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Burnout
The nursing shortage crisis is the result of a self-perpetuating cycle. Understaffed hospitals mean that nurses have less time for necessary breaks and to process the trauma they see on a daily basis. This leads to unsustainable levels of responsibility without an increase in compensation, coupled with increasingly unsafe patient-to-staff ratios, which drive nursing talent out. Many of the remaining nurses in the workforce are left with growing patient loads and often feel like they cannot share their struggles at work, so they eventually end up quitting. The reality of working in a hospital is now so different from what nursing students are taught in school that many nurses quit within a year of graduating.
The Need for Solutions
To address the nursing shortage crisis, hospitals and policymakers must create healthier workplaces for nurses. Hospitals can make it easier for nurses by normalizing conversations about mental health and directing them to free mental health resources. They can also develop policies that prioritize staff well-being, such as staffing patterns that allow for mandatory breaks and adequate sick and parental leave, and enforce limits on shift lengths. Policymakers can pass legislation that protects nurses, drives better patient care, and lowers healthcare costs by setting minimum nurse-to-patient staffing requirements, requiring studies of best practices for nurse staffing, and providing whistleblower protections to nurses who advocate for the safety of their patients.
As we celebrate Nurse Appreciation Month in May, it is crucial to uplift nurses and call for real change where it is needed. All of us who work with nursing agencies are here to support our policymakers and hospitals as they work to create healthier workplaces for our nurses. The more nurses we lose, the less patients will be able to get quality care when they are ill or injured. Wait times for medical procedures, hospital beds, and even emergency room admissions will rise even more. It is not an exaggeration to say that people will needlessly suffer and die if we do not take action to address the nursing shortage crisis.