Will nurses come back? 3 healthcare leaders weigh in

The pandemic has sparked an unprecedented nurse staffing crisis. Will nurses return to healthcare post-pandemic? Two chief nursing officers and a hospital CEO shared their thoughts with Becker's in October.

MARK MAHNFELDT, RN-BC, MBA, MSN NEC-A. Vice President of Patient Care and Chief Nursing Officer, Emerson Hospital I think it's really split. I think you're going to have some that just, at this point, have made a decision to not return. A lot of these individuals are within our subspecialty areas, like the intensive care units, the operating rooms, the post-anesthesia care units and the emergency departments. So it's certainly a challenge as far as the institutional knowledge transfer to much younger nurses, but I think you'll see a split. We, as healthcare organizations, are going to have to think about how we can have flexible schedules for these individuals, especially people that are close to retirement age. 

If you remember a while back, pre-pandemic, when there was a significant drop in the financial markets, a lot of people who were deciding to exit the healthcare industry actually stayed on a lot longer because they had a lot of spouses who had lost their jobs. And they had not done well during the big drop in markets.

People have certainly done incredibly well over the last year in terms of rate of pay. In nursing, the rate of pay is through the roof, and it continues to be elastic in terms of demand. So I think there's going to be a split. I think you'll have some people coming back, but I think you're going to see a fair amount exit and do something different, maybe virtual care. There are a lot of markets for virtual nursing care, and we've thought about this as well, where you can have people with a high level of experience in some specialties do training virtually for nurses that are physically at the organization. So they don't have to come in and be exposed, but they can still transfer that knowledge.

So we as leaders have to think about ways to be flexible, to allow these individuals who are on the fence to have a mitigated work-life balance, so they're not physically needed onsite. There are a lot of people thinking about how to make that happen, but I believe it's going to be split.

Christine Schuster, RN, MBA. President and CEO at Emerson Hospital So when COVID-19 hit, a lot of nurses who would have continued working retired early, and the hard part about that is those are the more senior nurses who, when you have younger nurses come in, guide them, teach them, train them, mentor them, precept them, which is important. 

I was an ICU nurse for five years, and it's all experience. You can read the books or whatever, but you get good by working and doing it and seeing it so many times. So we've lost a lot of knowledge and brain power; not just the book knowledge, but the day-to-day experience. That's a big loss moving forward in terms of having the right people to precept and to bring new nurses along. 

I think we lost nurses because of the emotional and the mental toll on them, especially in the hospitals that just were hit with COVID patients all the time. My nurses said the hardest part was, with an iPad, they were the go-between the family at home and the dying patient. And that does take its toll on you. 

A number of nurses left because they had someone at home who was immunocompromised.

We're definitely losing nurses because of the vaccine mandate. If they don't want to get vaccinated, they're going to just find places [to work] where they don't have to [get vaccinated].

The lack of childcare really was a big one because when childcare centers shut down, we lost a whole lot of that middle segment of nurses. I think right now we have a crisis in childcare. So if childcare doesn't get better, I don't think as many nurses will get back to work in the numbers that we'd like to see.

I think if you're in your mid to late sixties, you're probably saying 'I'm retired, I'm going to stay out of the game.' I think people who left the acute care setting, if they think it's safer, I think they will [come back]. But I don't think they'll be coming back in droves.

Ryannon Frederick, MSN, RN. Chief nursing officer at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There is no argument that the past year or two has been challenging for those working in healthcare. The pandemic has made the work environment exponentially more difficult. That coupled with daunting challenges in personal lives have required nurses to make tough decisions to find balance.

While there are challenges, it is not hopeless. Over the last 18 months we have seen many nurses return to practice after retirement, proud and privileged to help during times of crisis.  Retired nurses volunteered to help with vaccines, testing, infusions and other areas that were hit hard during the COVID surges. Additionally, we are hearing from our academic partners that the enrollment for nursing schools is increasing. We are excited to help nurture future nurses and have increased capacity to assist in their training.

I do believe that nurses will return as we find a new normal. This will be expedited as organizations learn how to balance meeting their professional and personal needs without compromising on the care of our patients. One of the most important lessons learned from the pandemic was that healthcare organizations need to be judicious in understanding the needs of the nursing workforce. We will continue to be flexible and adaptable and ready to take them back as soon as they are able to return.

Nurses are trusted experts who provide incredible patient care. The profession is a calling, a passion, and it is incredibly important that we have the nursing workforce that prioritizes caring for themselves to be fully present for the patients who need them. 

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