Most trusted, least valued: How to help nurses

Despite being the top trusted profession in the U.S. for 22 years running, nurses are the least respected and most stressed, according to experts and national data. 

In an analysis of the nation's 873 most stressful jobs, five of the top 10 are in healthcare. The roles are urologists (No. 1), anesthesiology assistants (No. 3), acute care nurses (No. 6), obstetricians and gynecologists (No. 7), and nurse anesthetists (No. 10). 

The results weren't surprising to Rachael Drake, MSN, RN, divisional chief nursing officer at MUSC Health, or to Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, PhD, RN, president of the American Nurses Association. 

Nursing is inherently stressful, Dr. Mensik Kennedy said, but extra stressors are burdening the workforce. These include an increase in high-acuity cases and staffing challenges, including early retirements and new nurses leaving the industry. 

At Charleston, S.C.-based MUSC Health, the long-term effect of this stress is appearing through more callouts and higher turnover in high-demand units. There has also been more interest in the system's employee assistance program because of substance use disorders. 

"We know that nurses, there are struggles with alcoholism, there are struggles with medication [misuse]. They're not immune to any of that," Ms. Drake told Becker's. "Post-COVID, you've seen that increase in alcohol and drug addiction among nurses."

Decreasing the stigma around asking for help can go a long way, she said. 

Dr. Mensik Kennedy said she thinks most health systems undervalue nurses, only seeing their largest labor force as an expendable cost: "They think that they can accomplish patient care without nurses."

"I think maybe hospital executives think they have to create their own wheel and create their own thing," Dr. Mensik Kennedy said, "when there are tools and resources available off the shelf that they can put into practice right now for their staff."

Those resources include institutional offerings — such as employee assistance programs and counseling services — plus simply asking front-line staff about their well-being. These questions and check-ins fortify the psychological safety in an organization, according to Ms. Drake, who served at another South Carolina hospital before joining MUSC in October. 

"When we're rounding, we're asking those questions one on one about well-being. Is there anything I can do to support your well-being?" she said, adding that showing appreciation to front-line workers boosts morale and reduces stress. "As a CNO, I round on my leaders, and leaders are rounding on all the front-line employees."

Dr. Mensik Kennedy also recommended implementing shared governance and elevating nurses' voices, such as appointing more nurses to healthcare organization boards. Only 5% of hospital board members are nurses. 

The ANA also offers resources for improving well-being and "stress first aid," a new program being piloted in four states focusing on the needs of younger nurses and nurses of color.

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