Unsafe staffing and stress force New Jersey nurses to consider leaving the profession

This summer, the Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey surveyed more than 500 hospital nurses to better understand their experiences, challenges and needs in these unprecedented times. The survey results are a wake-up call for the state, according to HPAE. 

Stressed nurse

“We’ve heard a lot of stories from our members about large numbers of nurses leaving hospitals and a critical staffing shortage. But we needed the data” to see if the data corroborated the anecdotal reports, said HPAE President Debbie White. She described the survey results as “chilling and alarming.” 

“If we don’t take concrete steps to fix this, our healthcare system, especially in hospitals, will be in serious trouble; in fact, based on this survey, I would pose that we are already in serious trouble,” White said. 

According to the survey, nearly a third of nurses have left the bedside in the past three years, and of those still working in hospitals, 72 percent have considered leaving. 

When asked to indicate the top two reasons why they might leave the bedside, staffing levels (53 percent) and stress and burnout (51 percent) led the pack, followed by compensation (26 percent). 

Patient safety and the quality of care nurses provide are influenced by various factors, ranging from staffing levels and access to tools and resources, to the level of preparedness and experience of nurses. But nurses described staffing situations that were setting them up for failure and, as a result, a decrease in the quality of care they could provide for patients. 

Three in four bedside nurses in New Jersey hospitals rate their units’ staffing levels as poor or not good. As a result, 77 percent of nurses believe that the quality of care hospitals can provide is deteriorating, and 75 percent believe that hospitals are becoming less safe. To address the issue, HPAE has been advocating for a state law requiring safe nurse staffing levels in all New Jersey hospitals and ambulatory care centers for many years. 

“As a nurse for more 35 years, most of it in critical care, I constantly struggle to manage the stress of providing care for my patients, as so many of my fellow nurses have left the bedside,” said Sheryl Mount, a registered nurse at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly. “Mentoring the next generation means having to help prepare them on how to provide care, but also how to protect their profession. This is a burden on nurses who are exhausted and feel abused.” 

Alice Barden, a registered nurse at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, talked about the sacrifices healthcare workers made during the pandemic and how nurses and health professionals were considered heroes at one point. But no more. 

“How can you look at us as healthcare heroes ... when you won’t even sit at the table and have a realistic conversation with us about what needs to happen in order to get nurses at the bedside,” she said, referring to healthcare system administrators. 

“Nurses are coming to work day after day short-staffed, unable to take time off or vacations because there is no one to fill in for them,” said Barden. “At work, you’re experiencing moral injury because you want to do the best for your patients but don’t have the resources to do so.... We keep going because it’s what we do, ... but we’re drowning, and I’m not sure how much longer we can keep going like this.” 

Banita Herndon, a registered nurse at University Hospital in Newark, agreed. “COVID-19 magnified the staffing crisis into an enormous beast,” said Herndon. Her hospital’s staffing has decreased across all disciplines. Now Herndon is required to fulfill other responsibilities. On any given day, she takes on the roles of a respiratory therapist, lab technician, transporter and dietitian, to name a few. As an underfunded state hospital, all of the issues causing staff exodus at other hospitals are 10 times worse at University Hospital, according to Herndon. 

Most nurses (91 percent) believe that nurse retention problems will persist unless hospitals take action. In their minds, that action starts with better staffing levels and higher pay. And according to the survey, nurses do not doubt that their hospitals can afford to hire more nurses and pay them more. 

“In hospitals, traditionally staffing has been a line item that’s been cut down to its lowest amount in order for hospitals to maximize their profits,” said White. “For years, our unions have talked about unsafe staffing, … and now we’re at a crossroads. We must address this now. Saving money is not an issue; we need to save patients.” 

[Adrienne Coles]