When we last looked at the state of nursing in May 2021, the world was just starting to adjust to the challenging times brought on by the pandemic. Nurses were being hailed as heroes for their efforts to provide care under extraordinary circumstances, but may of the challenges nurses faced, have existed long before the pandemic began. From burnout to workplace violence, nurses are facing increasing challenges and need support now more than ever. Here is an update on what the future of the nursing profession looks like.
Current State of Nursing
In late 2021, Nurse.org surveyed over 1,500 nurses on a wide range of issues, including COVID-19, the nursing shortage, and their job satisfaction. Unfortunately, the results did little to alleviate concerns about the worsening nurse shortage. Over 80% of nurses who responded to the survey expressed feeling burnt out, underpaid, and frustrated with their organization’s leadership. Not surprisingly, staffing and pay issues were two of the reasons cited for nurses who were considering leaving the profession. Some minority groups who responded also expressed feeling less appreciated and less likely to remain in their current situation than white nurses.
Staffing shortages are exacerbating these types of issues. Even before the pandemic, 56% of hospitals reported that nurse staffing levels impacted safe patient care. In spite of all this, a great majority of nurses expressed positivity and hope for the future of the nursing profession. For example, 70% of respondents still believe nursing is a great career, and 64% stated that new nurses should join the profession. Through all of the challenges our nurses have faced over the past few years, they are still encouraging the next generation to continue their pursuit of nursing as a career, so why are we still experiencing a shortage of nurses?
Concerns about the Nursing Shortage
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing workforce is still expected to grow by 9% through the year 2030. Despite the pandemic, the most recent data shows entry-level nursing program enrollment increased by 3.3%, although this is less than pre-pandemic levels. So if nursing program enrollments are increasing, why is there a nursing shortage? The answer to this question is not as straightforward as you might think.
First, while entry-level nursing program enrollment has increased slightly, the number of students in degree completion programs, such as bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), master’s, and PhD nursing programs, have decreased. This decline may be a short-term issue exacerbated by the pandemic, but it bears noting.
The bottom line is that the number of new nurses entering the profession, coupled with an increase in nurses leaving, cannot keep up with a rise in patient volumes. To put a number on it, an analysis published by HealthAffairs.org showed that the total supply of registered nurses decreased by more than 100,000 in 2021. This drop is the largest seen in over 40 years.
If these nursing losses were primarily due to retirements and an aging workforce, they might be less of an issue and could be addressed by driving more enrollments in nursing programs. However, when examining the nursing losses by age group, the largest percentage reduction occurred in nurses younger than age 35.
Addressing Nursing Challenges
As the Nurse.org survey showed, the great majority of nurses still have hope for the future of their profession. Considering the amount of stress and the challenges they have faced for the past several years, it is vital that administrators and healthcare industry leaders capitalize on that sentiment. Turning the tide of the nursing shortage will take an "all hands on deck” approach, as there is no single solution to the issue. Here is a collection of strategies that can make an impact on healthcare organizations of all shapes and sizes.
How to Support Nurses
- Listen to Nurses: Nurses want to feel appreciated. While potlucks and appreciation days are nice in the moment, they don’t address the longer-term issues that drive nurse dissatisfaction and contribute to retention issues. The best way for nurses to feel appreciated is by listening to their concerns and taking action.
Honest and transparent communication fosters a collaborative culture within any organization. Establishing effective lines of communication requires attention, effort, and interpersonal skills on the part of leadership and participation on behalf of the nurses. As trust builds throughout, everyone feels more invested and engaged, ultimately cultivating a positive work environment and promoting staff retention.
- Prioritize Nurse Retention: While this seems like stating the obvious, the current state of nursing shows that many healthcare organizations are not placing the necessary prioritization on improving their nurse staff retention. With the nursing shortage impacting healthcare on so many levels, retention should be at the top of every executive's to-do list.
This goes back to the first point about listening to nurses to see what would help retain them. Being more flexible with shift schedules and reducing mandatory overtime is a good place to start. Incentives, pay, and benefits are also important factors to consider. As retention levels increase, so does morale and the overall quality of care. Whenever possible, nurses should make their voices heard if they have ideas on how to improve retention.
- Promote a Positive Workplace Culture: Much has been written about how the pandemic impacted our nurses and frontline healthcare workers. Surveys and other data sources confirm the challenges that lie ahead.
Nurses are stressed and don’t feel appreciated. Creating a more supportive, positive work environment can greatly improve nurses’ job satisfaction and retention rates. Like all of us, nurses want to feel valued and strive for a better work/life balance. Strong workplace culture will make everyone feel more supported and better equipped to deal with the stressors that are prevalent in the practice of medicine.
- Increasing Diversity in the Nursing Profession: Taking steps to increase diversity in the nursing student body is another way to reverse the nursing shortage. Greater representation can be a key contributor to improving workplace culture and ultimately nurse retention.
The challenge is the increasing cost of education and unequal access in certain communities create barriers to pursuing nursing as a career. The healthcare industry needs to support programs that promote these educational pursuits and provide financial aid. By supplementing the workforce through better accessibility to such programs, organizations can invest in future nursing staff.
Looking Towards the Future
The pandemic highlighted the indispensable value of our nation’s nurses. They have always been considered the most trusted, but seeing the sacrifice and effort through the most uncertain times in recent memory gave the public a new spotlight to their work and the challenges nurses face.
The future of nursing is bright. There are pitfalls such as burnout, compassion fatigue, and staffing concerns, but nothing that could not be resolved, as long as there is a concerted effort to stay focused on the issues. Healthcare organizations need to continue evolving and move towards more inclusive and collaborative work environments to support the future of the nursing profession.
Supplemental Health Care is proud to foster a culture of caring throughout our organization. Reach out today and learn more about the ways we support nurses and provide opportunities that can help you take your career to the next level.