There’s a nursing shortage that is not only affecting the United States, but the entire world. And research is showing that it could to get worse.

That’s why it’s crucial for nurses to stay happy and not completely burnout. And it’s not only up to them to stay that way, but for their employers to keep them pleased and working as well.

Anne Dabrow Woods, DNP, RN, CRNP, ANP-BC, AGACNP-BC, FAAN, Chief Nurse of Health Learning, Research & Practice at Wolters Kluwer, an acute care/critical care nurse practitioner at Penn Medicine, Chester County Hospital; a clinical adjunct faculty member in the graduate nursing program at Drexel University, and author of COVID-19: Transforming the Nursing Workforce in the New Paradigm of Care took the time to answer our questions.

What could the current nursing shortage mean for hospital care quality?   

The nursing shortage is actually a global issue. According to the latest research, it is estimated that the world will need an additional 13 million nurses by 2030; in the U.S., the need is projected to be 1.1 million (International Council of Nurses). There are several reasons for the nursing shortage. As the population of the world increases and Baby Boomers continue to age, the need for care will increase. This is compounded by the fact that nursing schools around the country are struggling to meet the rising demand for nursing education due to limited faculty, resources, and clinical sites; they turn away an estimated 80,000 qualified applicants each year in the U.S. due to this supply and demand issue (American Association of Colleges of Nursing). A large portion of the nursing workforce was set to retire in the next 10 years. However, the pandemic has accelerated this event, and nurses are leaving sooner than expected due to widespread burnout and exhaustion.

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If nursing staff are feeling overworked and undervalued, they will more readily leave their institution, and perhaps the nursing profession altogether. This, in turn, increases the current nurse shortage, and the problem continues to worsen. Hospital care quality suffers if nurses are burnt out and overwhelmed, just as it suffers if nurses are missing. Patient wait times increase, and bedside care suffers. For hospital care quality to improve, there needs to be a concentrated effort to fix the supply and demand issue in nursing education, and there needs to be a concentrated effort on workforce well-being and fostering resilience—that is the bottom line.

What can hospitals/medical centers do to increase resilience among their existing nursing staff, while making sure that they don’t burnout and leave?

To foster resilience among the workforce, organizations need to acknowledge there is an issue and focus on workforce well-being. This means providing a safe environment in which to practice and provide patient care. Providing adequate staffing based on acuity/severity of illness and competency not just on numbers is the first step. Building up float pools that are cross-trained to work across adjacent specialties and move from one area to another is essential. While nurses do not like to float outside of their units, in an emergency or disaster situation, having the staff cross-trained to work in adjacent specialties helps to create an agile, efficient workforce.

Health care institutions need to invest in their workforce. Providing adequate breaks, healthy meals, self-scheduling, shorter shifts, and being able to take time off is crucial to preventing burnout. Nurses want to feel valued—providing continuing professional development activities and having the ability to meet career goals with lateral or vertical moves can make the difference between keeping the talent and losing it.

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Health care systems must recognize when burnout and moral distress are occurring. That means having trained personnel up on the units evaluating what is really happening and then providing mental health support through employee assistance programs. Often nurses are worried about their families; health care institutions need to provide alternative child or family care or even financial planning.  Burnout can be prevented or at least minimized if health care institutions are actively on the lookout for it, address the issues that cause it and invest in their workforce well-being.

How can nurses prevent their own burnout? Especially when hospitals, etc. are understaffed?   

Preventing burnout is no small task, but nurses can certainly take steps to reduce their stress and prioritize self-care when they feel overwhelmed in the workplace. It’s important for nurses to know how to evaluate their own well-being, recognize their limitations, and be able to advocate for themselves when something is beyond their bandwidth.

Learn to be comfortable with saying, “No.”

Saying no is one of the hardest things for nurses to do; we are a caring profession and we often sacrifice our own self-care to care for others. We need to understand that if we don’t care for ourselves and find our own inner peace, there will be no one left to care for others.

Personally, I recharge by finding my inner peace and joy by reading, enjoying the outdoors, and sitting by water. Reclaiming “me time” within my day to recharge allows me to show up fully ready for my next day of work.

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What are some proven strategies for creating a more agile workforce that both addresses the nursing shortage as well as avoids reliance on traveling or temp nurses?  

The agile care model is based on patient acuity, competency of the workforce, and alternative care delivery models. It provides agility that allows hospitals to move their nursing workforce when and where they are needed and uses other members of the health care team to support patient care such as unlicensed assistive personnel, licensed practical nurses, and others. It also switches the care delivery model from a primary nurse model to a hybrid team model of care as needed.

The backbone of this model is cross-training the float pool to work across adjacent specialty areas and as a backup, having the full-time staff cross-trained to work across adjacent specialties in an emergency situation. This interdisciplinary team-based approach facilitates the rapid deployment of staff to areas most in need in a crisis, such as what we’ve experienced with COVID-19, and provides better care for a greater number of patients.

This addresses the nursing shortage by improving the quality-of-life nurses experience at their workplaces. With more nurses trained to work in adjacent areas, staff will be able to take time off and recharge. When nurses feel practice-ready, confident, and able, they are less likely to burn out because they will experience less overall stress at work. Health care institutions must also be on the lookout for early signs of burnout and encourage their nurses to take time off when it is needed.

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What are the biggest mistakes that hospitals/medical centers can make with their current staff that could lead faster to burnout and them leaving?   

Health care organizations need to understand that their biggest asset is their workforce. Without nurses and other medical professionals, hospitals and medical centers cease to function. Nurses need to be recognized for their value—their workplaces should support them by looking out for signs of burnout, offering mental health support, offering family/childcare support, and encouraging a healthy work-life integration. Without these basic acknowledgements, it is no surprise the burnout and shortage levels are what we are seeing today.

Nurses’ mental health matters! Nurses need to talk to their organization and be vocal about how they can better support their nursing teams. Whether that is more frequent review of their workforce policies, more transparency in the workplace, or more vacation time, nurses shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and stand up for themselves and for their fellow nurses.

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