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Nurses are Burned Out and Leaving the Field, Studies Show

— April 24, 2023

As COVID-19 continues, healthcare workers are changing careers.

COVID-19 affected all of us in ways we weren’t prepared to confront, and many frontliners are burned out. Those who lost loved ones and experienced other traumas were undoubtedly the hardest hit, but there’s a subset of the U.S. population that has been consistently hammered by the realities of COVID since the pandemic first began. Healthcare workers. Nurses, in particular, have felt the ongoing strain of COVID, as staffing shortages and lower-than-acceptable pay have taken a toll in recent years.

The results of a National Council of State Boards of Nursing survey, released recently, illustrates the full effect of that constant pressure. About 100,000 nurses have quit the field over the past two years, according to the NCSBN survey. Worse yet, another one-fifth of the remaining registered nurses in the United States indicated they, too, intend to leave the workforce by 2027. Not surprisingly, pandemic-related stress, burnout, and retirement were cited as the primary reasons most of these nurses have quit in recent years or intend to do so in the near future.

With 100,000 registered nurses having already left, and another 610,388 planning to leave in the next few years, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing sees a clear and critical issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

“The data is clear: the future of nursing and of the U.S. health care ecosystem is at an urgent crossroads,” said Maryann Alexander, PhD, RN, FAAN, NCSBN Chief Officer of Nursing Regulation, in the NCSBN statement. “The pandemic has stressed nurses to leave the workforce and has expedited an intent to leave in the near future, which will become a greater crisis and threaten patient populations if solutions are not enacted immediately.”

Nurses are Burned Out and Leaving the Field, Studies Show
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

While many of the nurses who were burned out and have already departed had been in the field for 10 years or longer, the future of nursing appears to be in dire straits — 188,962 of the nurses who intend to quit by 2027 are younger than 40 years of age. In addition to registered nurses, the survey found that 33,811 licensed practical and vocational nurses have also left the profession since the beginning of the pandemic. These nurses typically work in long-term care facilities and with vulnerable populations. How exactly has the pandemic affected nurses?

Most cited the stress and feeling burned out, in general, that has come from increased workloads brought on by the pandemic, typically without increases in pay or improvements in working conditions. Of those surveyed, 62% said their workloads increased during the pandemic. The terms and phrases they used to describe the realities of nursing over the past two years were disturbing: More than 50% said they felt emotionally drained, either daily or at least a few times per week.

Most people don’t want a nurse caring for them in their time of need who is emotionally drained. How about a nurse who feels “used up” (56.4%) or “fatigued” (49.7%) from the strains of the job? “Burned out” (45.1%) was another phrase used by many of those surveyed, and 29.4% said they were “at the end of the rope.”

Taking all this into account, it’s easy to understand why so many nurses have left the field recently, or why more than 7,000 of them staged a massive walkout in New York in January.

The nurses at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx went on strike for three days, saying that staffing shortages since the start of the pandemic were a major sticking point in negotiations. The New York nurses returned to work after agreeing to terms with the hospitals on improved working conditions, including “enforceable nurse-to-patient staffing ratios,” according to the New York State Nurses Association. The issues that led nurses to strike in New York are emblematic of the state of nursing throughout the country in the wake of COVID-19.

NCSBN urged action while revealing its survey results at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. during a panel discussion titled “Nursing at the Crossroads: A Call to Action.”

“There is an urgent opportunity today for health care systems, policymakers, regulators and academic leaders to coalesce and enact solutions that will spur positive systemic evolution to address these challenges and maximize patient protection in care into the future,” Alexander said.


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NCSBN Research Projects Significant Nursing Workforce Shortages and Crisis

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