The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Covid-19 is taking a terrible toll on nurses. They deserve much more help.

Nurses check on a patient in the covid-19 ward of the intensive care unit at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark., on Aug. 4. (Houston Cofield/Bloomberg)

Covid-19 can be a nightmare, especially if it becomes severe and requires hospitalization. But imagine the agony of seeing this nightmare over and over again, every day. Such is the intense stress on acute-care nurses, those in hospitals at front lines of the pandemic, and it is taking a terrible toll.

Across the country, evidence suggests nurses and other heath-care workers are experiencing a confluence of painful traumas: fear of becoming infected; strain from witnessing so many deaths, seeing people die alone; and worry about their own families.

In the early months of the pandemic, the problem was shortages, chaos and uncertainty. In response, health-care workers displayed heroic stamina and resiliency. Although there have been pockets of vaccine hesitancy, the American Nurses Association reports that 88 percent of nurses have been vaccinated or plan to be. But the pandemic is taking a toll on mental health. Acute-care nurses are suffering burnout, and many are quitting or considering doing so. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 426,000 workers left jobs in health care and social assistance in September 2020, while preliminary data indicate 589,000 quit this September, a quit rate that is the highest since data was first collected two decades ago.

The distress was captured in the third survey of mental health and wellness by the American Nurses Foundation, based on responses from 9,572 nurses between Aug. 20 and Sept. 2. Two-thirds or more reported stress, frustration and exhaustion within the previous two weeks. About a third said they had sought professional mental health support since the pandemic began. Asked whether they intended to leave their position in the next six months, 21 percent said yes, and 29 percent said maybe. When asked why, 47 percent said “work is negatively affecting their health and well-being.” Burnout has skyrocketed: “Today, 34% of nurses are not emotionally healthy, with substantially high numbers among emergency department, critical care, and young nurses.” These results were more serious than a similar survey taken earlier.

“They have given their all for a year and a half or two years,” Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses, said recently. “They have worked long hours. They have worked without breaks, and they have been called to do a duty without protective equipment and without support. They are now burnt-out. They’re devastated. They are physically and mentally exhausted.”

The American Nurses Foundation survey said more than a third of nurses are now 55 or older, but it is the younger generation who will succeed them that struggles “disproportionately with mental health.” More than boxes of doughnuts and takeout pizza, nurses need respect from patients and managers, relief from the massive pandemic patient overload and understaffing, mental health support on-site, and all the support that the government and private sector can muster. Hopefully, the day will come when the American Journal of Nursing won’t be carrying letters to the editor that echo one it ran recently under the headline “Burnout at the Bedside.”