Nurses Have Had Enough


By Augusta Saraiva & Alexandre Tanzi

A large swath of American nurses want out of the profession, raising the threat of a mass exodus that would leave gaping holes in health care.

Almost one in three registered nurses say they’re likely to seek a different job, according to a recent survey. A McKinsey & Co. study last month warned the US risks a shortfall of as many as 450,000 nurses. Job openings in health care surged above 2 million in April, not far short of last year’s record.

The pandemic put nurses and other health-care professionals under unprecedented strain. The worst of the Covid crisis may be over, but staff remain stretched. And that’s creating a “vicious cycle” of fewer people wanting to become nurses as the profession becomes more stressful and less satisfying, according to Cole Edmonson, chief clinical officer at a hospital staffing agency.

“This really creates this negative narrative that can have implications for the workforce for years to come,” Edmonson says.

What’s more, just when the US urgently needs more nurses, enrollment in student programs fell for the first time in more than two decades last year. And the survey found young nurses are significantly less satisfied with their careers than older colleagues – which bodes ill for the prospect of reversing that drop.

Students in Nursing Programs Fell

Last year was the first time since 2000 that enrollments decreased.

Employers have tried turning to foreign labor. Last fiscal year, the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools received over 17,000 applications to its visa screen program, which provides certification for foreign health-care professionals — more than twice the pre-pandemic number.

“The amount of work we’re doing for health-care institutions – we’ve always done some, it’s always been a big piece — but it’s taken off and exploded,” said Brendan Venter, an immigration lawyer at Harris Beach PLLC. Even employers who used to shy away from the bureaucracy and delays involved in bringing nurses from abroad are now “kind of forced into it,” he said.

‘Grow Our Own’

Even so, that’s a patch not a real fix. There’s strong political opposition to faster immigration. Plus, the supply of foreign nurses isn’t unlimited – and there’s a global bidding war under way, as many countries in similar straits to the US seek to recruit them.

“We’ll never make up for those shortages by bringing people in from abroad,” said Megan Cundari, senior director of federal relations at the American Hospital Association. “We need to grow our own nurses.”

Kathleen Polley-Payne, who’s executive director of the School of Nursing at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in Florida, has some ideas how that could be done better. For one, the profession could use more gender diversity. “We need men coming into nursing,” she said. “Their perspective is different and fresh.”

Women in Nursing

More than 8 in 10 nursing workers are women.

For another, there needs to be a better path for people who want switch professions. “We’ve found a lot of people from finance and so forth were coming to nursing because they felt like they needed a purpose,” Polley-Payne said. A shorter qualification program for would-be nurses with degrees in something else would help, she says. So would measures that let employers make bigger contributions to help nurses repay student debt.

When there’s a shortfall of nurses, each of those who remain has to deal with more patients – exacerbating what’s already one of the job’s biggest downsides.

The pandemic has seen a series of strikes by nurses all over the country — the latest one began in Oregon this week, involving some 1,800 nurses and clinicians — and safe staffing levels, along with better compensation and benefits, have consistently featured among the demands.

‘Every Day Short’

Benny Mathew was a key voice in a three-day strike in January by 7,000 New York nurses, who sought to lock in higher staffing levels as well as better pay. “We are understaffed and we’re working every day short,” he said.

Mandating a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio is a widespread demand in the profession. Currently, only California has such rules, though it eased them in the Covid crisis. Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill this year to set similar criteria nationwide. It’s opposed by hospital groups, who say it would raise costs without necessarily improving care.

The McKinsey survey found that “not having a manageable workload” was one of the two main reasons cited by nurses planning to quit. (The other was “not feeling valued by their organization.)

On top of all the profession’s regular strains, former emergency-room nurse Hannah Berns said it was the pandemic that catalyzed her longstanding ambition to try something different. She’d been a registered nurse for a decade when Covid-19 arrived, but “being so vulnerable in a work environment was scary.”

Now she’s swapped her ER job in San Francisco for a “quote-unquote normal life” working at a digital publication for nurses, after getting her master’s during the pandemic. “I absolutely miss the hospital setting,” she says. “But at the same time, the burnout that was associated with it, the long shifts, the violence — it’s unacceptable.”



  • Daniel Deal

    July 3, 2023 22:51 22

    Many other issues are not only keeping up with the CEU’s to maintain our nursing license every two years. We also have all the hospital requirements every year. Acls, Pals, and Bls also required every two years plus the simulators every three months. Weekly chart checks , and requirements for clinical ladders every two years per facility. Plus just the high responsibility, liability, and multiple stressors required to provide optimum and safe health care delivery. Also keeping up with any certifications in your particular field. This really gets extreme and overwhelming and frankly is so demanding that really wears down a nurse over time. Most hospitals place such heavy demands on their nurses without enough help or help that just does the bare minimum to get by. Not to mention the built in nervousness of ever making a mistake that could harm someone.

  • Renee Carothers

    July 2, 2023 03:58 26

    As a nurse of 30 years, I have watched healthcare institutions become big business where nurses are the pons to be used, moved, and tossed around, depending on the bottom line, which is the dollar, with no regard for patient first. Now it’s dollar first, and nurses have no security or assurance that they won’t be moved to an area where they have no training, or forced to deal with abusive patients with little support. I stopped working full time during the pandemic and went to casual per diem status, so I could control my work life. I have no plans to return to work where business executives and the dollar have taken priority over a field where people should be the bottom line.

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