Nurse shortage leads to burnout, low morale. What can be done?

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Nurses are considered the backbone of the U.S. health care system, but there’s an unprecedented shortage. The U.S. needs more than 200,000 new registered nurses every year until 2030 to meet the demand. 

Caitlyn Hall, a nurse at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., said she loves her job but the last few years haven’t been easy. 

“I think people are really exhausted,” Hall said. “We’ve been relying on a lot of overtime these last few years to really fill kind of the holes on the unit.” 

Travel nurses are a solution, but it comes at the cost of morale and the bottom line because they’re offered more money than nurses on staff. 

Linda Talley, senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Children’s National, said it’s a challenge. 

“It drove the market prices to a level that, frankly, is unsustainable,” Talley said. “What we’re seeing now over time is that that’s starting to level out a little bit. We would much, much prefer to invest in our own staff.” 

Morale among her staff “waxes and wanes,” Talley said. 

“Early on in the pandemic we all kept saying to ourselves, like, ‘When do we get back to normal?'” she said. “Now we realize normal is a thing of the past.” 

Nationwide, about one in five registered nursing jobs are unfilled, according to NSI Nursing Solutions Inc.  Between the toll of the pandemic, an aging workforce and an aging population in need of more care, the shortage is only getting worse. 

Meanwhile, nursing schools are turning away tens of thousands of students because there isn’t enough faculty to teach them. 

Many days, some nurses don’t even have time to break for lunch. 

“It’s a job where, if the people need you, you have to be there,” said Hayley Roper, a nurse at Children’s National. “You can’t just, you know, say, ‘Please hold.'” 

Talley says there needs to be a “care model redesign.” 

“One idea that we are talking about right now, for example, is virtual nursing,” Talley said. “What about a nurse who would otherwise may be thinking about reducing her hours or transitioning into retirement. Instead, could we take her expertise, connect her through an iPad to a nurse who is at the bedside, needs a second set of eyes?” 

Some hospitals are offering shorter shifts — making them eight hours instead of 12. Others have increased pay and offered bonuses or helped pay off student loans. 

“In this economy right now, the issues around cost of living are weighing heavily on our new nurse graduates in a way that I haven’t seen in my 34 years,” Talley said. 

Other solutions include hiring more international nurses, increasing funding to add more slots in nursing schools and mentoring from an early age. 

“I mean as early as elementary school,” Talley said. “We have a program that allows us to go into high schools, for example, and begin to identify those who aspire to have a career in nursing.” 

Solving the crisis also requires changing the narrative. Nursing is a hard job, but as Hall said, it’s fulfilling. 

“You get all of the benefits of just feeling rewarding and feeling like you’re doing something good,” Hall said. “I think having those, like, redefining moments just has been incredible.” 

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