In a negative-pressure treatment room, intensive-care staff attend to to a COVID patient on Aug. 10. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Nurses and other front-line health care workers across the state and nation are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out as the COVID-19 pandemic continues — raising concerns that workers will continue to leave the field, causing nurse shortages in Florida.
Overall, unprecedented levels of stress have stricken all health care workers, from licensed practical nurses and registered nurses to medical assistants and certified nursing assistants, according to health executives.
A panel of health care leaders representing various settings told lawmakers this week that the pandemic has triggered burnout among workers at hospitals, nursing homes, and community health centers.
Nurses, in particular, have chosen early retirement or left for other industries, health experts said.
In Florida, nurses and others have had to deal with COVID surges, new variants, and deaths over at least 18 months.
The Florida Hospital Association warned that the state could see a nurse shortage by 2035 if retention and recruitment aren’t addressed.
In a joint report from FHA and the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, the state is projected to see a shortage of 59,100 nurses by 2035 — including 37,400 R.N.s and 21,700 licensed practical nurses (LPNs).
“For two years, nurses have put our own health and lives at risk on the front lines of this historic pandemic,” Patricia Diaz, an R.N. in South Florida, told the Florida Phoenix.
“Experienced nurses are retiring in unprecedented numbers because of the burnout and mental and physical stress. This depletes the talent level and number of available staff even more, creating a downward spiral of shortages and stress,” said Diaz, who is a member of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, a union with members in Florida.
“Many of us have gotten sick, some have died and all of us are exhausted,” she added. “My union and coworkers stick together to form an important support system, but the situation is truly critical.”
‘In the face of burnout, higher compensation sounds really good’
At Florida hospitals, staffing challenges have involved nurses leaving to pursue jobs in other states through travel nursing agencies “for a significantly higher pay,” while “others because of the stress and strain that they have been under,” said Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.
But as nurses leave jobs at hospitals, “nursing schools report higher enrollment in the programs,” according to a report from Newsweek.
“Under the best of circumstances, it is an incredibly demanding job to be in a 24-7 hospital environment,” Mayhew told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee this week.
She continued: “They have taken a break from health care. Others have retired early. We have hospital leaders talking about the post-traumatic stress that their staff are facing and the trauma that they’ve experienced. ”
Travel nurses work on contract at hospitals and other settings, according to nurse.org. Florida nurses have chosen travel gigs in other states that pay much higher, such as California and Idaho, as previously reported by the Phoenix.
Steven Bennett, workforce development manager at the Florida Association of Community Health Centers, said during the health committee meeting that nurses should focus on long-term careers instead of “temporary” positions at agencies.
“In the face of burnout, higher compensation sounds really good,” said Bennett said. “We struggle to measure what that burnout looks like; that’s a broader challenge.”
Meanwhile, unhappiness among nurses is growing because of the physical and emotional demand of working during the pandemic, according to a report from Aya Healthcare, a large travel nursing agency.
The agency conducted a survey of R.N.s and found that “51 percent of nurses report symptoms of burnout,” and all R.N.s reported greater levels of happiness “prior to the pandemic.” The survey included interviews — conducted between May 17 to June 14 — with 30 R.N.s who were providing direct patient care in hospital systems across the country.
In the report, nurses complained of the “physical and emotional demands of COVID-19” as well as “increased stress and anxiety.”
Problems at community health centers
Bennett cited problems with retention, recruitment, and unfilled positions at community health centers, which serve low-income families. He said those centers have struggled to recruit and retain workers, including medical assistants, dental assistants, LPNs and R.N.s.
The association represents the state’s 52 community health centers.
Bennett said that non-health-care industries are not only recruiting “but poaching [health care] workers.”
“We are seeing individuals leaving for jobs in fast food, for jobs in the service industry,” he said. “I saw something yesterday saying McDonald’s is paying as much as $21 per hour. That is going to impact entry-level positions.”
Addressing the retention challenges for nurses, Mayhew of FHA highlighted the development of apprenticeship programs and new classroom and clinical training opportunities but didn’t mention increasing pay for nurses.
“There are so many strategies around apprenticeships, mentors; our hospitals are bringing in mental health resources to help support that workplace environment,” Mayhew said.
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