To combat burnout, a U of T-led study examines nurses’ work environments during COVID-19 – Advice Eating

Exhausted and burned out, many nurses are leaving the workforce amid an inexorable surge in nursing demand over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Linda McGillis Hallprofessor in of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing and a renowned international researcher with expertise in the nursing work environment, says what is happening to nurses right now is not just a challenge, it is a crisis – and one that needs to be addressed.

“Nurses have faced increases in patient care before,” says McGillis Hall. “This happened during SARS in 2003 and with corridor medicine in 2019. The difference is that those periods of surge ended – there was a grace period.

“COVID-19 has been relentless with no breaks – and with each new wave, caregivers face new challenges in care, pushing them to the breaking point.”

McGillis Hall received a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to learn directly from nurses across the country what is needed to improve the nursing work environment. Along with her team of researchers from universities across Canada, the study aims to provide a snapshot of the state of the current care workforce after working through so many waves of the virus and to identify ways in which burnout is reduced and retention by nurses can be improved.

“We know from recent research about the psychosocial impact of the pandemic on caregivers, leading to fatigue and burnout, but we do not yet have evidence-based strategies to address and mitigate these impacts,” says McGillis Hall.

Staff shortages, along with heavier work assignments and increased patient care needs, appear to contribute to the factors currently faced by nurses from burnout. It has become exceedingly difficult for caregivers to maintain a standard of care for each patient in an environment where they only have time for basic care needs.

“Nurses come into the profession because they care about working with people,” says McGillis Hall. “[So]if you hear words like the ‘new normal’, maybe this needs to be explored further.”

Even before the pandemic, health organizations around the world, from the WHO to the International Council of Nurses, were warning of an impending global nursing shortage.

sheri price, a professor at Dalhousie University and a co-researcher on this study, focused her doctoral research on nurse retention and recruitment in response to the predicted shortage. After an unprecedented two years of upheaval in Canada’s healthcare system during the pandemic, Price now hopes the study will deliver promising changes in practice and policy on how best to support nurses.

“Nursers have insight into the support they need, which is a big part of this study,” says Price, who holds a PhD from the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. “Caregivers will have a voice and will not only be able to tell us about the problems they face, but also find creative solutions because they are the ones on the ground doing the work.”

The researchers say now is the perfect time to conduct this study, as ongoing healthcare needs are easing and public interest in healthcare system performance remains high. Additionally, with the federal government’s recent announcement of a search for a national Chief Nursing Officer, taking the time to anticipate and make changes to the workforce ahead of a further increase is imperative.

“I see this project as a beacon of hope,” he says Michelle Lalonde, associate professor at the University of Ottawa who is also a co-investigator on the study. “The public needs some hope that things will improve and we’ll be able to uncover some concrete, action-oriented recommendations for caregivers.”

Lalonde, who also completed Bloomberg Nursing’s PhD program, has examined the transition of new nurses into the labor market as well as the perspectives of Francophone nurses, which will be an integral part of the pan-Canadian study.

Lalonde says nurses who entered the job market early in the pandemic will have tremendous knowledge of the challenges of entering the practice – know that Sanja Visekrunaanother co-investigator, agrees it’s critical for policymakers when it comes to retention strategies.

“As a nursing instructor, I’m always thinking about how I can support students as they enter nursing,” says Visekruna, an assistant professor at McMaster University and a graduate of Bloomberg Nursing’s PhD program. “Thinking of students now entering the profession, mentoring continues to be fundamental to building nursing skills and the study will likely look for new and evidence-based ways to support this and nurses in different roles, what for the bond and the future is of vital importance to the nursing staff”.

As the largest group of healthcare providers, the well-being of nurses and their ability to sustain healthcare systems across the country is of paramount importance to the well-being of society — one reason the researchers believe mental health needs more attention and working conditions of nurses.

“We’ve long needed evidence-based guidelines to support caregivers,” says Price. “It is imperative that we act now for the well-being of our nurses and the profession.”

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