The month of May honors National Nurses Month a time designated to recognize the incredible contributions nurses make to the field, particularly during the increased strain they have endured throughout the COVID-19 crisis. In early 2020, the pandemic turned nurses and other healthcare personnel into frontline responders, forcing them to contend with caring for COVID-19 patients, insufficient personal protective equipment, grueling work hours, and other factors contributing to exponentially rising rates of burnout.
Today, nurses and other healthcare professionals continue to grapple with the global pandemic and its repercussions on the healthcare system, one of which is the magnified visibility of institutional failures. Effects of such failures are widespread and include the tremendous burden placed on frontline nurses throughout the past year, severely impacting their mental and physical wellbeing. With endless reports of overwhelmed and exhausted practitioners flooding the news, supporting nurses and their fellow medical professionals has never been more important.
Mental Health During the Pandemic
A recent study evaluated a total of nearly 2,500 surveyed nurses from the New York University Langone Health System in order to better quantify and qualify the mental health effects of the ongoing public health crisis as well as to outline the role organizations can play to support their employees. The results indicate that approximately 27% of nurses reported feeling anxiety “nearly every day” while 16.5% responded similarly for depression. Researchers found that the higher the frequency of caring for COVID-19 patients was, the higher the levels of stress that were reported while ongoing pandemic concerns were tied to greater anxiety levels overall.
A key finding with the potential to inform future administrative decision-making was the association between high-quality nurse-physician work relationships and improved mental wellbeing scores. Up to 75% of surveyed nurses pointed to co-worker support as a helpful factor to their mental health throughout the course of the pandemic. Many nurses reported that institutional resources and support in the form of strong relationships forged with supportive colleagues played a key role in reducing their feelings of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, nurses reported that adequate support from their health systems was tied to improved mental wellbeing; conversely, reports of organizational constraints were tied to greater anxiety levels.
Another important factor was access to adequate personal protective equipment and sufficient training on its usage as well as temporary housing to avoid infecting others. Receipt of PPE use training was among the most frequently cited factors in the surveyed nurses’ ability to continue providing care for patients with COVID-19.
Supporting Nurses During the Pandemic and Beyond
The results of the research indicate the need for focused institutional efforts and in particular, expanded resources for nurses and other medical practitioners focused on professional development as well as support for their mental health.
“Our study demonstrates that institutional resources—such as supportive staff relationships, professional development, providing temporary housing and access to personal protective equipment—were associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression among nurses,” Christine Kovner, a professor of geriatric nursing at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “Hospitals can play a role in building and sustaining resiliency in their workforces by understanding the triggers that contribute to stress, depression and anxiety, and by developing resources to minimize these factors, particularly during crises,” she said.
In addition to institutional efforts, there is a pressing need for policy changes and governmental initiatives that aim to support nurse practitioners as well as their mental wellbeing especially during times of need. Organizational support and expanded resource allocation are essential to this cause, as is the need for collaboration and investment in medical education. Today, relatively few nurses deem their formal nursing education beneficial to their ability to care for COVID-19 patients indicating a stark lack of emergency preparedness training which must be addressed.