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Last month, Washington state Senator Maureen Walsh argued against a legislative action that would provide mandatory, uninterrupted rest times for nurses. Senator Walsh stated that such a provision could negatively impact patient outcomes in certain circumstances, and further insisted nurses had ample downtime, and claiming that they “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.”
Her statement did not go over well within the nursing profession. The sound bite traveled fast and the senator’s office was quickly inundated with protesting phone calls and decks of playing cards.
Although Sen. Walsh was speaking strictly about specific nurses in specific facilities, one takeaway from professionals across the country was clear: nurses are overwhelmed and they need their concerns to be heard instead of dismissed by lawmakers.
However, serving this need is more difficult than may be evident at first glance. My company recently conducted a nationwide study of the challenges facing modern nurses, and learned that nearly half of all respondents (49%) had considered leaving nursing in the past two years.
This surprising and problematic statistic has many drivers, but one of the most pressing is a need for better mental health care for nurses. More than 35% of respondents reported that the state of their mental health had a negative impact on their work, with an equal percentage (35%) believing it is taboo to discuss mental health struggles with other nurses.
Far from enjoying idle time playing cards, nurses face heavy workloads and significant stress. Here are three factors that contribute to mental health struggles for nurses, as well as where the industry should focus its efforts to improve mental health care.
Burnout has long been a significant issue in the medical profession, and in our study, 62% of nurses reported feeling regularly burned out. Nurses typically work long hours with heavy responsibilities, a demanding formula that can harm anyone’s mental health. Nearly a quarter of nurses (24%) reported taking medication for job-related anxiety and depression, with three percent of nurses reporting suicidal thoughts.
Burnout also affected work performance for 44% of respondents, which was a contributing factor for the 49% of nurses who contemplated leaving their profession. If even a modest fraction of those nurses had actually abandoned their careers, the impact on the country’s already-understaffed health care system would have been catastrophic.
2. The Nationwide Nursing Shortage
The problem that compounds all other issues is the persistent nationwide shortage of registered nurses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted 1.2 million vacancies would emerge between 2014 and 2022, and 91% of nurses reported that their hospitals were understaffed.
In 2016 we issued our first study on the welfare of modern nurses. At that time, 62% reported that the growing shortage had negatively affected their workloads. In our recent study, the number had skyrocketed to 88% of nurses.
This widening gap continues to progressively harm nurses’ mental health, with more than half (54%) reporting that the increased workload negatively affected their mental health. Patient care is also impacted, with 62% of nurses reporting that the shortage is diminishing the quality of care they could provide.
Administrators and government can do more to help alleviate the shortage, according to nurses. Responding nurses recommended using temporary staffing, offering government subsidies for schooling, and creating new nursing programs. Temporary staffing and travel nursing, in particular, were highlighted as a potential source of immediate relief in areas of greatest need.
3. Harassment and Bullying
Workplace harassment and bullying are a significant and widespread problem in nursing, just as they are in many industries across the country. Almost 40% of nurses reported experiencing harassment during the past year, a stunning number that demands a need for immediate attention.
Nurses battle this abuse in all areas of their work. Bullying and harassment come from other nurses (30%), patients (25%), physicians (23%), and administrators (22%). Reports of sexual harassment were less common than other forms of harassment, but 21% of nurses still face it, with the majority of incidents coming from patients.
If there is a silver lining, it is that incidents of workplace hostility may be decreasing for nurses: In 2016, 45% of nurses reported bullying and harassment, compared to 40% today. As the medical industry continues to address and eliminate this damaging behavior, the efforts will pay off in significant benefits to nurses’ mental health.
Senator Walsh’s comments may have come across as ill-informed, but they did spark a nationwide conversation about the heavy workload nurses carry and the negative impact on their mental health. Even as the senator retracted her comments, there were productive and crucial conversations taking place about improving work conditions and mental health care.
Reducing burnout, addressing the nursing shortage, and stopping harassment and bullying are issues that require attention from individuals and organizations across the entire medical industry. If we all work together to create solutions, we will take much-needed steps toward improving mental health for nurses.