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"Like a rolling blackout": Nurse burnout increases during COVID-19

010422 NURSE BURNOUT FEATURE 1
Photo by Sebastian Sørensen
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Nurses Burnout Increases During Covid19

Almost half of nurses in the United States may leave their jobs in the next six months due to burnout made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s according to a survey by the American Nurses Foundation.

Isabel Brooks loves her profession, but in September, she needed a break. She’s using a pseudonym because she still fears retaliation, a common sentiment among healthcare workers.

“Healthcare providers are nervous to speak out because we’re really told not to," Brooks said.

She worked across the country for more than 10 years as an ICU nurse, before spending six months as a travel nurse in a rural New Mexico hospital caring for COVID-19 patients.

“I remember this one night literally walking into this patient's room with COVID. And they were so sick and we just wanted to get them out," Brooks said. "If you let the door slam shut behind you, their oxygen levels would plummet. This is how tenuous this person is and I am the only ICU nurse.”

She says multitasking has taken its toll on her wellbeing and those of her colleagues.

"And so I could go to work and really keep the facade stay really calm, cool, collected, but internally, it was like, 'Oh, like my heart's pounding a little bit.' That's something that didn't used to happen, and then I would go home, and I couldn't turn off my brain. And you're just in this like, weird, constant state of stress and anxiety, and you don't really understand,” Brooks said.

She is not alone. Keith Carlson is a Santa Fe nurse with 25 years of experience who also serves as an independent voice for nurses through his podcast, blog, and career coaching services. He speaks with nurses across the country regularly and says the circumstances of burnout are ubiquitous.

“It's kind of like a rolling blackout that just continues to happen," Carlson said. "We're just trying to figure out how to continue to care for people and keep the standards of care as high as possible, without tearing our hair out at the same time.”

Research shows that before the pandemic, professional burnout for ICU nurses hovered between 30 and 40%. Now, by some estimates it may be as high as 60%. The International Classification of Diseases defines professional burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Brooks says mismanagement has been ever-present in her career across the country from Baltimore to Minnesota to New Mexico.

“Patient Safety has now become part of the bottom line," she said. "But they don't understand that cutting nurse’s resources, how much they are undermining the very mission of what they're trying to accomplish with patient safety and cost savings.”

Eleanor Chavez is executive director of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, Local District 1199. She says staff need more mental health support and while hospitals do offer services to employees, many want other options.

“They want to go outside the hospital, they want to have care somewhere else. And sometimes it includes the family, too, because it really impacts the entire family,” Chavez said.

But at the core of the story of professional burnout is nursing shortages. Even before the pandemic, the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee documented that the state was already 6,000 nurses short of the need. Carlson said this was amplified by the pandemic.

“There's nurses who just feel like they can't go on. And COVID-19 has exacerbated pretty much every symptom or situation we've seen up until 2020,” Carlson said.

Isabel Brooks has a hard time understanding how people can go on as the pandemic rages.

“You’re  doing the impossible. You don't even know how you get through the night. I was doing that for six months, and there have been people who've been doing it for the entire pandemic. And I just, I don't know how they're still functioning,” Brooks said.  

And now those same healthcare workers face the rapid spread of the omicron variant. Officials worry this variant will sicken more healthcare workers and appeal to New Mexicans to follow best practices. That includes getting vaccinated and boosted, avoiding unnecessary risks, getting tested, and getting preventative care to avoid adding to the load on staff in the hospitals.

One way hospitals and the state have tried to meet immediate staffing needs is through travel nurses, like the nurse in this story, but that has a hefty price tag and may add to burnout. Jered Ebenreck will have more in future reports.

KUNM FreeForm DJ, Brandon Kennedy, recorded the hospital beeps for this story.