I haven’t encountered a single nurse who undoubtedly can’t say nursing is one of the most challenging and rewarding professions. Sadly their patience is being tested this season primarily due to understaffed environments post the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burnout and moral injury are at an all-time high resulting in a massive departure from bedside nurses. And the most disturbing news is the increasing rate of nurse suicide, mental health issues, and substance abuse.
Furthermore, the evidence shows how working in such conditions can take a massive toll on both physical and mental health. Continue reading to explore the challenges nurses face in understaffed environments and learn evidence-based strategies to help nurses maintain their well-being.
The Struggles of Understaffed Nursing Environments
1. Heavy Workloads and Physical Strain
It’s clear that the nursing profession comes with lots of risks and not having countermeasures in place to address every single one of those risks, in my opinion, is an unethical practice. In understaffed nursing atmospheres, nurses often find themselves shouldering heavy workloads.
Being a bedside nurse can be physically demanding, leading to fatigue, musculoskeletal issues, and workplace injuries. A study in the Journal of Nursing Management found that understaffed units caused higher rates of back pain and patient-handling injuries.
2. Emotional Toll and Burnout
Being a bedside nurse requires constant emotional transactions between the nurse and the patients. Understaffed facilities only exacerbate this mental health issue 10-fold. Nurses may experience burnout, compassion fatigue, and emotional exhaustion which hinders their ability to deliver optimal care. Conclusions from the Journal of Advanced Nursing highlight that nurses in understaffed settings are more likely to experience symptoms of burnout, leading to decreased job satisfaction and poor overall health.
3. Increased Stress and Mental Health Challenges
Chronic stress is a prevalent issue for nurses in understaffed conditions. The constant pressure to provide high-quality care with limited resources can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. A report by the American Nurses Association (ANA) notes that nurses in understaffed facilities are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues and substance abuse.
Strategies for Maintaining Physical Health
1. Ergonomic Practices
Prioritize ergonomic practices to reduce the risk of physical strain and injuries. Ensure proper body mechanics when lifting patients and use assistive devices whenever possible. Regularly stretch and exercise to strengthen core muscles and improve posture.
2. Adequate Rest and Nutrition
Your body cannot function at a high capacity if you are sleep-deprived or lacking the essential vitamins and minerals needed for optimal function. Getting sufficient rest and a balanced diet are critical for optimal physical well-being. Proper sleep and nutrition can boost energy and the immune system.
3. Seek Supportive Footwear
Invest in high-quality supportive footwear to reduce the impact of long shifts on your feet and back. Well-fitted comfortable shoes can make a substantial difference in your overall comfort during work hours.
Strategies for Maintaining Mental Health
1. Self-Care Practices
Engage in regular self-care practices to alleviate stress. This can include activities like meditation, mobility training, deep breathing exercises, or any hobbies that are highly rewarding to you. Studies have shown that these practices can help you manage the emotional toll of nursing.
2. Peer Support and Communication
Connect with your colleagues for emotional support and to share experiences. Discussing challenges and finding common ground can help you feel less isolated. Additionally, consider seeking professional counseling when needed.
3. Set Boundaries
Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. Avoid overextending yourself and learn to say no when necessary. Prioritizing your well-being is crucial to sustaining a long and fulfilling nursing career.
Advocating for Change
While it’s very important to address the individual struggles of nurses, I believe it’s also essential to advocate for systemic change within the entire healthcare institution. Nurses can:
- Speak Up: Raise concerns about understaffing with management and advocate for safe nurse-to-patient ratios.
- Join Professional Organizations: Collaborate with professional nursing organizations, such as the American Nurses Association (ANA), to lobby for policy changes that support nurses.
- Educate and Inform: Share your experiences and knowledge with the public to create awareness about the challenges nurses face in understaffed environments.
As a nurse, today, so much is expected from you, and the passion for nursing sometimes isn’t enough to overcome the extreme challenges you face routinely. By implementing the tactics discussed, nurses can deliver exceptional care while maintaining optimal mental and physical health. A healthcare system in which its caregivers are not operating optimally is a failing system, let’s flip that narrative and affect productive change together.
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No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other licensed clinicians.
- Whitman, G. R., Kim, Y., Davidson, L. J., Wolf, G. A., & Wang, S. L. (2002). The impact of staffing on patient outcomes across specialty units. The Journal of Nursing Administration, 32(12), 633–639.
- Dyrbye, L. N., et al. (2018). Burnout among health care professionals: A call to explore and address this underrecognized threat to safe, high-quality care. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 74(2), 272-279.
- American Nurses Association (ANA). (n.d.). Addressing nurse staffing issues. https://www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/advocacy/state/addressing-nurse-staffing-issues/
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