Nurses care for all of us. The least we can do is return the favor

Nurses, the heart and soul of American healthcare, are leaving the profession at an alarming pace. A recent University of Michigan study puts this long-building exodus in a new light: 39 percent of state-licensed nurses in Michigan told researchers they plan to leave their jobs in the next year. That’s bad news for a state with an estimated 8,500 open nursing positions. It gets worse.

The Michigan study, led by Christopher Friese, found the group most likely to leave were those representing the next generation of caregivers: 59 percent of nurses 25 or younger said they plan to leave in the next year. And for anyone hoping this trend diminishes as we emerge from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers have a warning: “Few nurses cite COVID as the primary cause for their planned or actual departure.”

So why are they leaving? As a veteran nurse who has an abiding respect for my nursing colleagues, I believe it’s critical that we explore the answers to that question together. Only then can we provide meaningful solutions.

Pandemic lessons

Even if COVID is not a leading cause cited by nurses leaving the profession today, there is no denying its role in driving many from the workforce.

A recent study by NCSBN, a nonprofit group supporting nursing regulators, found that about 100,000 registered nurses nationwide left the workforce due to the stress of the pandemic. With another 610,388 planning to leave by 2027, that adds up to about one-fifth of RNs nationwide. The reasons cited mirrored those in the U-M study: stress, burnout, fatigue.

The U-M study found 84 percent of practicing nurses were experiencing emotional exhaustion. As the health profession with the most direct patient contact, we care deeply about our patients and their families. It hurts when things don’t go well for them. It’s the same when we see our colleagues suffer. We saw too much of that during the pandemic.

It’s also stressful when someone takes out their frustration on us – another challenge that grew during the pandemic.

If you’ve visited a healthcare facility in recent years, perhaps you’ve noticed signs reminding you that “this is a place of healing,” where verbal and physical violence will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, those signs became necessary during a pandemic-era uptick in workplace violence. According to healthcare analytics firm PressGaney, more than two nursing personnel nationwide were assaulted every hour in the second quarter of 2022. That adds up to 57 assaults per day.

I know that’s unimaginable to the overwhelming majority of our patients, who have warm, respectful relationships with nurses. But the disturbing trend of violence was reflected in the Michigan study, in which 43 percent of nurses reported experiencing emotional abuse, and 22 percent reported physical abuse.

One of the biggest concerns cited by nurses in the U-M study as a reason they plan to leave? Inadequate staffing. If nurses are leaving because we don’t have enough nurses, we clearly face a self-perpetuating problem.

What can we do?

Nurses care for all of us. The least we can do is return the favor.

Start by raising awareness of the challenges facing the modern nursing profession. We need to understand how to recruit more people into a profession where the challenges are many ― but so are the rewards. This will require innovative partnerships and improving recruitment, retention and training among all healthcare positions.

As National Nurses Week (May 6-12) approaches, your healthcare provider may provide an opportunity to show your gratitude to the nursing staff. Better yet, show your support to this important profession year-round. This is the largest healthcare workforce and the most trusted profession in America. Nobody touches more lives, and they serve in every aspect of healthcare with compassion and expertise. They have earned our support.




Steven Polega, RN, MHA, is chief nursing officer at University of Michigan Health-West.


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