Listen to this article.
Voiced by Amazon Polly

A mental health crisis is beginning to emerge within the nursing community. Nurses are treating a high volume of patients, often without proper crisis response training or adequate supplies of PPE. We have already seen nurses and doctors take their own lives, and the UN is warning about the psychological effects of COVID-19, particularly on frontline health workers. 

I spent nearly a decade working in Level-1 trauma centers as an ER nurse. Even without a pandemic, a nurses’ job is all-consuming. The emotional burden you carry at work doesn’t just disappear at the end of a shift. But now, the COVID-19 crisis is pushing nurses to the limit of their mental and physical health. My company, Trusted Health, recently conducted a survey of over 1400 nurses across all 50 states to shed new light on nurses’ mental well-being and perspectives right now. The results are staggering. Nurses’ mental well-being has declined significantly, with a self-reported decrease of 30% in mental health since the crisis began. What’s worse, nearly 95% said they don’t feel the healthcare industry supports or prioritizes their mental well-being at a systemic level. 

As an educator, I’ve seen the challenges many nursing school students have experienced when transitioning from academia to their first job. Many licensed nurses find their schooling simply hasn’t prepared them for the structural realities of nursing. As a result, one-third leave their first post within two years

Although basic counseling services have been available to nurses via the Employee Assistance Program, they are not always sufficient for those working in challenging, high-stress environments such as ICUs and ERs. It should not be the responsibility of nurses to fix the system and take care of themselves during this mental health crisis. Universities, hospitals and the larger healthcare system need to do more to properly prepare these students for the mental hurdles our work poses day in and day out. Today’s health crisis has underscored this issue, to devastating effect. 

There are some positive signs that meaningful change is on the horizon, and that the industry is taking these risks seriously, working to create a better model to help care for and protect the mental health and well-being of nurses — both now and in the future. Over the past several weeks, we have started to see a new peer-to-peer model of mental and emotional support emerge that demonstrates tremendous promise. Organizations like the American Nurses Association (ANA) and The Physician Hotline are offering medical workers personalized, hands-on programs to better address the COVID-19-related mental health impact of their work. Last month, Trusted announced a new initiative with the Ohio State University’s College of Nursing, providing nurses with comprehensive support and evidence-based strategies from mental health nurse practitioners and advanced practice nursing students to nurses working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve also recently launched a Mental Health Resource Center, which was designed as a central repository for nurses to access information, content and programs intended to support their ongoing mental and emotional well-being. 

A peer-to-peer model can improve practicing nurses’ health and reduce stress, while simultaneously offering nurse practitioner students the opportunity to build their mental health education and get an honest look at the realities of their new workplace. Today, while many nursing students are concerned about how they will be able to reach the number of required clinical hours to complete their certifications, these support lines offer an additional opportunity to meet those requirements while providing a valuable service. 

Undergraduate and graduate programs that incorporate skill building and stress management into their curriculums early on can better arm our nurses with the proper tools and coping strategies needed to thrive. And with this foundation, nurses can continue to expand their skills throughout their career with crisis support, mindfulness training, and mental health courses. 

Looking ahead, nursing and healthcare organizations like the ANA, Trusted, and others need to continue pushing for broader industry changes that better support nurses. While 90 percent of hospitals have some kind of employee wellness program in place, participation remains low. Nurses working long shifts with heavy patient workloads can’t take advantage of a free gym or meditation app if they are exhausted. These programs are an important first step in addressing mental and physical health, but they are largely ineffective without bigger structural changes in place. One important change that can have a lasting impact is creating an effective staffing system to better manage grueling schedules. Instead of leaving the self-care burden on nurses, there is an opportunity for institutions to focus on larger systematic changes like staffing and proper scheduling that get at the root of the mental health problem.  We need to remember that clinical staff are not commodities to be swapped in and out but highly skilled knowledge workers that need support to stay effective.

We are starting to see positive signs that educational and professional institutions are focused on adopting meaningful, lasting changes that address the underlying mental health, education, and infrastructure issues that have long affected the nursing community. From rallying cries to online donations, nurses have received an outpouring of love and appreciation over the last few months. However, there is still more work to be done to provide vital, ongoing support to the nurses across our country that need it most. One of the worst possible outcomes of this crisis would be for our health systems and the nursing profession to return to the status quo.

Dan Weberg, RN, PhD
Latest posts by Dan Weberg, RN, PhD (see all)
Share This