A nurse treats a patient with coronavirus in the intensive care unit at a hospital on May 1, 2020 in Leonardtown, Maryland. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Fifty-one percent of nurses are considering leaving the field in the next year, mainly because of “unsafe staffing” levels, according to national study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute released on Thursday.
Just 15% of the 2,257 registered nurses surveyed last fall said they felt their workplace had safe staffing levels, while nearly half said they had to work “mandatory overtime” to cover scheduling gaps.
Nearly all reported feeling “moral distress,” meaning they aren’t able to do what they think is right for a patient because of forces beyond their control. For example, a nurse who is responsible for numerous patients may feel moral distress by having to ignore a patient in urgent need of care in order to help another.
The survey doesn’t bode well for the persistent nursing shortage at hospitals and clinics across the country, which only grew worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January, the nursing shortage became so severe that Gov. Tim Walz tapped into $40 million of federal COVID-19 aid to hire temporary nurses, paying a staffing agency as much as $275 an hour for each nurse.
While the pandemic was widely blamed for burnout among health care workers, it’s not the reason many nurses quit, nor did it cause the shortage to begin with.
Minnesota Nurses Association, the union representing some 22,000 registered nurses across the Upper Midwest, conducted its own survey of 748 registered nurses who left the job in the past two years and found poor management and chronic understaffing were the most common reasons nurses quit.
More than 80% of those Minnesota nurses surveyed said they would not return to work in hospitals unless conditions improved.
The nurses union has been a vocal critic of cost-cutting measures like “just-in-time staffing,” which they say hurt patients and drive nurses out of the profession. In the last legislative session, the union lobbied for a law requiring hospitals to create staffing committees made up of nurses and managers with the expectation it would lead to lower patient-to-nurse ratios.
Nurses are 11% less likely to consider leaving the profession in the eight states that require staffing committees whose recommendations are enforced, according to the Illinois Economic Policy Institute study.
While that effort failed to get past a Republican-controlled Senate in Minnesota, the union has revived the idea in contract negotiations with hospitals this year.
Some 15,000 unionized nurses are currently negotiating labor contracts at 15 hospitals across the Twin Cities and in Duluth and have already come out swinging by picketing hospitals and targeting high executive compensation in social media ads.
Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said in a statement she hopes the report gets the attention of hospital CEOs.
“The crisis of short staffing in our hospitals is driving nurses away from the bedside, and it is past time for the hospital executives who created this problem to step up, come to the table, and negotiate with nurses offering solutions for short staffing and retention in our hospitals,” Turner said in a statement.
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