The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the most trying and difficult things that many of us have had to endure in our lives. Nearly everything we care about was disrupted from child care to going to work to visiting friends and family. Many became socially isolated, even more are dealing with stress and anxiety from the virus. To some degree, all of our economy was impacted, with many businesses still struggling to reopen and many employees cautious about their options moving forward.

With all of the crazy things that COVID brought into the lives of everyday people, it can be hard to realize the even more significant toll it has had on health care providers, particularly nurses. Nurses have been on the front lines of the pandemic since the beginning and most have been put into situations that nobody outside of the profession can imagine. Understandably many are dealing with burnout and ready to leave nursing altogether.

One recent report from Business Insider stated: “Many nurses on the front lines of the pandemic are burned out and mentally and emotionally tired. A significant portion of nurses in a Trusted Health survey said they were considering a new career. Of those who said they felt less committed to nursing, 25% were looking for a new job or planning to retire.”

This high rate of burnout and apathy are concerning and ultimately beg the question: What are hospital administrators to do?

Put Trauma Care Front and Center

Our nurses have seen a lot this past year. Many have been put into positions where hospitals were at capacity and whole units had been converted to treating COVID patients, yet it still wasn’t enough. Supplies became limited and many watched as an uncountable number of patients died without the comfort of family from a disease most people knew nothing about and couldn’t do much to treat.

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That kind of trauma is typically reserved for horrific places such as war zones.

Yet our nurses showed up day after day to care for the sick. Some gave up going home to their families for months to protect them from the virus. Others faced prejudice for “risking the lives of others” by going to the grocery store after a shift. Sooner or later, it is all enough to break a person.

One survey conducted by the International Council of Nurses laid out the serious mental and physical health impacts that the pandemic is having on nursing professionals. Perhaps the single best thing that hospitals can do to support their nurses is to provide on-site, free mental health support and treatment. This type of initiative could give nurses an outlet and help them work through some of the difficulties they have faced in the past year.

Assist with In-Hospital Moves

Unfortunately, regardless of the support and treatment options that become available, many nurses have still seen too much and will leave. Though COVID-19 has pushed many strong-willed nurses past the breaking point, a significant number were there already. Even before COVID, there were plenty of legitimate reasons that good nurses left the bedside for other opportunities.

In these instances, it may be possible for hospitals to help keep quality people on staff just in a different position. For example, perhaps a nurse would be willing to stay but in a more administrative role. Moving into something such as medical billing and coding could allow them to continue to serve the community they care about but shield them from the traumas the stress brought on by the pandemic.

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Hospital administrators can also help nurses who don’t want to be at the bedside any longer move up into more specialized nursing roles. Some nurses may be willing to stay on staff with the promise that they won’t have to interact with COVID patients and can, instead, focus on specific diseases like GERD and provide the medication and treatment help with them.

Focus on Work-Life Balance

For those nurses who do stay, we can hope that mental health counseling and treatment will be available when needed. We can also hope that there will be a renewed focus on work-life balance from hospital administrative staff.

During the pandemic, many nurses were encouraged, if not forced, to work longer shifts or to pick up extra days. Unfortunately, once again, this behavior wasn’t exactly uncommon before the pandemic. It just became more apparent. Being overworked and underappreciated in this manner can lead to extremely high rates of burnout and ultimately more turnover, a less productive workforce, and a negative culture that permeates the entire workspace.

There are about a thousand studies out there that explain the incredible benefits of a strong work-life balance. These positives can range from significant improvements in personal mental and physical health to increases in workplace productivity, retention, and satisfaction. Though there is an undeniable need to fill a shortage of nurses, treatment of the folks already working should be paramount.

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The bottom line here is that our nurses have worked hard to do what they can to protect our nation during a global pandemic. Now, they need help. Changes that hospital administrators can make to help curb the number of nurses leaving are not necessarily small and easy ones, but they are critical to the long-term care of some of the most important caregivers.

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Sam Bowman
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