Beyond Pizza Parties: Meaningful Support for Burned-Out Nurses

The cycle is vicious. Even before the pandemic, nurses were feeling the pinch of short-staffing. Like gasoline on a smoldering fire, COVID-19 exacerbated the already serious nursing shortage issue. In the last three years, thousands of burned-out nurses have left the profession. 

These shortages have led to rising pressure on the nurses who remain, with many facilities scrambling to cover shifts and leaning on nurses to work longer shifts, with less time in between shifts. Increasing responsibilities, combined with limited administrative support, has led to an epidemic of burnout. 

Recommended course: Nurse Resilience in the Age of COVID-19 

What nurses had to say 

“Nurses feel like they don’t have much time for interacting with and educating their patients and patients’ families,” said one RN in our recent State of the Profession survey. “A lot of overwhelming responsibilities are being given to nurses, so they get burned out easily.” 

Other survey respondents shared similar feelings. “Everyone is tired of the mandates, the long hours, the state dictating the staffing ratio, understaffing, [and] underpayment.” said an LPN. 

Another RN summed it up succinctly. “Nurses are being asked to do more for less.”

By the numbers 

47% of the more than 3,500 nurses who responded to the survey said they felt undervalued in the workplace. 38% said they were dissatisfied with their current salary, and 45% said they had not received a raise in the last year. 

“The staff are hearing what else needs to be done, but they also need to hear things that are going well,” said one respondent. “Thank yous, ‘you are appreciated’ etc. Front line nurses need positive reinforcement.” 

In her reflections on the pandemic and her own nursing career, Beth Toner, RN and Programs Communication Director with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, highlighted the frustration that many nurses have felt in the wake of COVID-19. 

“My colleagues and I received many tributes during Nurses Week — a message from the administrator, posters and food in the break room, giveaways,” said Toner. “Don’t get me wrong; the gestures and the sentiment were lovely. But what I wanted more than encouraging emails and pizza was help.” 

Support for burned-out nurses

Kelly Rakowski, group president and chief operating office of strategic talent solutions at San Diego-based healthcare staffing agency AMN Healthcare, outlined two ways healthcare systems can address staffing shortages while supporting their current workforce. 

“One is to invest more time, resources and creativity into sourcing and recruiting healthcare professionals,” she said. “This includes broadening how you reach them. [Utilize] online job sites, social media, traditional direct mail, and personal direct outreach by telephone. It may also include establishing relationships with training programs to secure new graduates.” 

The second approach, said Rakowski, is to create the kind of practice environment and culture that is attractive to nurses. “Part of this [involves] offering a competitive incentive package. More important is establishing an environment that fosters teamwork, rewards results and allows healthcare professionals to do what they were trained to do: take care of patients.” 

Ultimately, the same things that attract candidates — competitive compensation, a positive work environment — are the same things that will help keep them, said Rakowski.  

“To this should be added continual communication,” she said. “Don’t guess what your health professionals think about their jobs. Ask them, through both forming staffing surveys and informal conversations. Communication is the key to preventing shortages.” 

Career mobility 

Though critically important, the nursing profession encompasses so much more than just bedside care. For burned-out nurses looking for a different role, the profession offers multiple paths to a rewarding career. 

“There are so many options for nurses to explore and find their niche,” said Deborah Martin, DNP, MBA, RN, NE-BC, FACHE, Director of National Accreditations and Quality at Elite Healthcare. “It may be at the bedside, but in a different patient population or location, or in an advanced practice role. It may be ICU, home care, a clinic, or even a congregation. In addition to direct patient care, there are also opportunities in teaching, business, leadership, quality, consulting, and politics.” 

Explore nursing leadership courses 

“That’s one of the beauties of our profession,” added Candace Pierce, DNP, RN, CNE, COI, Course Development Manager at Elite. “There are so many other fields within our profession, from computer science to case management to education. You may find you didn’t like the area, so go back to an area you know you like or try another one.”