The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted employment in every sector, for multiple reasons. People dealing with long-term disabilities as a result of the illness have found new ways of working, often from home. People who found that aspects of lockdown helped them get more out of life have reevaluated their priorities and shifted to part-time or hybrid work. In nursing, a lot of healthcare professionals have simply felt burned out and unable to continue. Throughout the past two years, nurses have been leaving the profession at the rate of around four million a month. This may sound like a disaster for the healthcare sector, but out of every such experience in the past, society, its institutions and its professions have ultimately emerged stronger. The Great Resignation, as it is being called, represents an opportunity to change the way we do things, ultimately benefiting everybody.
A chance to rethink the system
Anybody who works for government will tell you that big systems take a long time to change. There’s a fear of the investment required and risk involved in implementing radical shifts. In a situation like this, however, the balance of the situation changes at both the state and corporate levels. Investment must be made anyway, and there is risk no matter what happens, so the reasons to resist change effectively disappear. This means that long-awaited reforms can be implemented, taking advantage of new knowledge, new technology and a recognition of altered public needs to bring the healthcare system into the 21st century. The benefits of this won’t all become apparent at once, but the first green shoots are now appearing as the sector enters a period of regrowth, and it’s nurses themselves who are making it happen.
An influx of new ideas
The crisis in healthcare has prompted employers and politicians alike to undertake a listening exercise, seeking a better understanding of the needs of staff members and paying a lot more attention to the work of academic experts. If you’ve already spent years in nursing, you’re likely to be shocked by some of their conclusions, as they’re just figuring out things that nurses have been talking about for years – but at least they got there in the end. At the heart of this discussion is an understanding of just how physically and mentally strenuous nursing can be, and a commitment to introducing new measures that will change that, reducing burnout and making it easier for nurses to remain in good health throughout their careers.
Reallocation of roles
Do all of the tasks currently assigned to nurses really need to be done by such highly trained, specialist staff? Increasingly, employers are looking at reassigning roles so that simpler tasks like making beds and monitoring equipment can be reassigned to less skilled workers who won’t need the same level of education. They would be expected to be just as good at the tasks they are given, but they wouldn’t need the breadth of understanding that nurses have. Hospital porters already play a role in moving patients, but with the right training, they could take on more related tasks, reducing the physical strain on nurses and the overall risk of injury. Nurses could spend more of their time focusing on the more complex aspects of patient care, at which they excel.
Reassessing duties over time
In many professions where physical work is involved, it’s standard practice for expectations to be adjusted over time so that workers in their fifties are not expected to be able to do the same things as those in their twenties. This tends to happen informally within nursing, and some institutions encourage it, but making it the standard approach could do a lot to help older nurses who are beginning to develop joint problems or simply can’t maintain the same level of physical fitness they enjoyed in youth. This would give them the option of remaining active in the profession for longer and would also reduce the risk of them having to retire early due to injury. The result would be an increase in the proportion of highly experienced working individuals, which would benefit nurses of every age, as well as patients.
Introducing online nursing
Over the past decade, more and more people have been choosing to study nursing online. Elmhurst offers an entry level master’s program in nursing, which is ideal for people who want to move into nursing from other fields – a tempting prospect when there are so many positions becoming available. This experience, and the experience of supporting patients at a distance during the pandemic, has illustrated that it’s possible to do a lot more remotely than we previously thought. Indeed, it’s an approach that suits a lot of patients better than the traditional one, as it reduces the need for them to take time off work for an in-person doctor’s visit and means that those with exhausting chronic illnesses have less need to travel. Although it doesn’t work in every instance, the use of online nursing can dramatically reduce the overall strain on institutions, and it also provides a working option for nurses who are unable to continue in standard roles due to disability or illness.
Better support for new nurses
As well as investing in ways to help older nurses remain active for longer, employers are now looking at how they can provide better support for new nurses, such as helping more students make it through their courses and decreasing the number of those who decide to leave the profession during the early years of their career. This includes fostering a listening culture where it’s easier for new nurses to address difficulties they’re facing and receive a sympathetic response. It also includes acknowledging that things have changed since the early days of the profession and that many new nurses now have family responsibilities. Helping to create a better work/life balance means that fewer people will feel pressured out of nursing because of the demands they face at home.
Tackling systemic inequalities
Nursing has always been one of the most egalitarian professions around, placing a lot of emphasis on rooting out bias and stressing that every individual has equal value. Despite this, some minorities have found it difficult to make progress, especially in institutions where most people in senior roles seems to come from very similar backgrounds. The loss of staff at every level due to recent events creates a rare opportunity for systemic change, as a more diverse set of people are getting promoted and recruitment drives are reaching out into communities that have historically received little attention. This has the potential to create a nursing culture that truly reflects the culture as a whole, making it a more pleasant place to work and, in the long term, potentially improving health outcomes for minority patients.
Supporting individual choices
Sometimes, with the best will in the world, particular medical institutions are just not able to keep all their staff members happy. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. In the wake of the pandemic, some staff members are moving on simply because they don’t feel like they are able to focus properly in places that are full of bad memories. Famously, some institutions have responded badly to these resignations. ThedaCare in Wisconsin took to the law and filed a restraining order to stop seven of its workers from getting jobs elsewhere. However, it was dismissed by a judge who recognized that what’s really important is keeping people in the profession as a whole and respecting their individual decisions. When institutions show this respect, they may lose some nurses, but they will gain others, and morale will be stronger all around.
A better approach to complaints
A key aspect of improving morale involves institutions listening to their staff, collectively and individually, and properly addressing any complaints that they may have. It’s well understood that some institutions have historically tended to be dismissive and even dropped the contracts of nurses who pointed out problems. In our new post-pandemic situation, they can’t afford to do that, and this means there’s a real opportunity to change the culture in ways that will have positive benefits for everybody. Handled properly, a complaint becomes an opportunity for positive change. Employers are beginning to recognize that nobody knows how their institutions work as well as the people on the ground, and nurses’ insights, even if they emerge as criticism, offer a valuable route to improvement.
Trauma management initiatives
Sometimes, difficulties emerge in the workplace not because of people speaking up but because of what people feel unable to talk about at all. It’s no secret that a lot of nurses have been badly traumatized by what they’ve witnessed during the pandemic, but one of the positive things happening now, again made possible by that sudden facility for change, is a conversation about how best to provide nurses with proper trauma support, equivalent to that which is offered to military veterans. Even under ordinary circumstances, nurses can find themselves dealing with distressing situations, and an immediately accessible, dedicated support service could make a big difference in how they cope with their workplace experiences. It would reduce the risk of lingering problems and improve overall mental health.
Research has shown that one of the most effective ways of coping with the aftermath of distressing incidents is peer-to-peer support. That is, nurses recover better when they are able to spend time talking one-on-one with colleagues about what has happened, because nobody understands what it’s like as well as other people who have been there. With this in mind, some employers are starting to find ways for nurses to take paid time away from their usual duties in order to have those important conversations. This extends to a wider recognition of how important the nursing community is to its individual members and includes providing better support for that community through simple things like improving the spaces where staff go to relax and contributing funding for social events.
Building up teams
One of the simplest ways to support the nursing community is to strengthen the teams who work on the wards, and this is in fact something that has been happening organically in recent months. As people leave the profession, those who remain are finding new ways of working in order to fill the gaps. It’s a situation in which natural leaders come to the fore and duties are rearranged so that everyone can make best use of their particular talents. Although strained teams still won’t be at their best until they have new members, the improved efficiency resulting from this process means that once those new members are in place, they’ll work better than ever. The drive to recruit new nurses is underway, and many of them will find themselves in better working environments than their predecessors.
Valuing nurses properly
In the end, what a lot of this comes down to is employers finally acknowledging the tremendous value that nurses contribute to patients and to society at large. Many more lives would have been lost in the pandemic without the valiant efforts of nurses and other medical personnel, and that needs to be recognized with more than just words. Pay and conditions are already improving as different institutions compete to attract talent. As nurses realize how much choice they have in finding positions, the situation is only going to get better. The nursing profession, which has struggled throughout its history to be recognized on a par with other branches of the medical system, is beginning to get the respect that it has always deserved.
All these changes mean that although there is still some way to go to overcome the present challenges, the future of nursing is looking bright. Changes campaigned for over many years are finally being made, long-term problems are being addressed and individual nurses are finding themselves valued to a degree that they never were before. A new approach to healthcare is emerging, and it will be better for everyone.