Overworked, stressed and exhausted don’t seem to accurately paint the picture anymore of how nurses across Indiana feel two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While life has seemingly returned to normal for many, our nursing workforce is expected to continue feeling the pandemic’s impact for at least three more years. This is largely due to many nurses opting to exit the profession entirely, leaving health systems scrambling to address staffing shortages.
The Hoosier state is not immune to this problem. The Indiana Hospital Association estimates our state will need roughly 5,000 nurses by 2031. These health care workers often sacrifice their weekends and holidays and consistently work odd hours to care for others. As we near Daylight Saving Time on Nov. 6, we’re reminded of the extra hour night shift nurses add on to an already taxing shift. This is just one example of an annual occurrence when additional strain is placed on our health care workers, yet they show up to care for their communities.
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State leaders have taken steps to address this ongoing shortage through House Enrolled Act 1003, which simplified certain nurse licensure restrictions to help boost enrollment in nursing programs. However, it’s abundantly clear more work must be done. Fortunately, hospital leaders have tools they can leverage to help fill the gap and provide our health care workforce with some much-needed relief.
Incentivize health care staff to skill up
Providing quality patient care requires extensive training and education. It’s critical to the growth and sustainability of the health care workforce. Unfortunately, higher education isn’t always of equal access ― be that because of cost, flexibility, location or otherwise ― but it needs to be. Health care and higher education leaders carry the responsibility of helping break down barriers for entry into programs to support the workforce. By creating more streamlined opportunities, entry-level health care professionals ― like licensed practical nurses or medical assistants ― can graduate to more skilled work while seasoned nurses can find ways to emerge from the heavy weeds of patient care and grow their profession.
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Fortunately there are higher education partnerships that exist for hospitals that offer flexible, competency-based degree programs so that nurses can continue caring for patients while pursuing a degree. Health care leaders are in a position to help make these partnerships a reality, which can then lead to stronger retention rates for nurses and provide immediate pathways for those who are looking to upskill within the organization.
Recruit nursing preceptors
Preceptors are vital resources for newer nurses entering this field because they are experienced individuals who can help students translate what they’ve learned in the classroom into real world application. However, the volume of nurses who are willing to serve as preceptors has drastically decreased as nurses retire or exit the field.
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The average age of registered nurses is 52, according to a recent survey. This prompts us to dig in and understand what’s next. It’s not uncommon for nurses in the 50-60 age demographic to start preparing to retire or adjust their role until they do. These seasoned professionals have a wealth of knowledge that others can benefit from. We should incentivize this group to serve as mentors as a way to retain younger nurses in the field.
Prioritize mental health and a work-life balance
The health care sector is competing against others that may be able to offer its workforce more flexibility, which can help establish a better work-life balance for employees. Because this is not a profession that can be done remotely, leaders need to take a hard look at how it can provide nurses and health care workers with the valuable benefits and perks that allow them to live optimally, rest and recharge, so they can deliver quality patient care with less stress. Otherwise the quality of patient care will suffer alongside the workforce, negatively impacting hospital quality metrics and thus funding. It’s a potentially vicious cycle if we don’t start to create a more inviting workplace.
While life for many has seemingly returned to what it looked like before the pandemic, it’s abundantly clear our health care systems continue to deal with its fallout. Our nursing workforce plays a pivotal role in patient care and it cannot continue down its current path without intervention.
Lisa Eagans is the state director of prelicensure nursing forWGU Indiana. Eagans is a lifelong learner who started her career as a certified nursing assistant and now holds a Master of Science in Nursing degree.