Will a return to pre-pandemic hospital and nursing home conditions solve nurse burnout?

A new study of RNs finds preexisting burnout and dissatisfaction poses a persistent risk to public health.

During the most acute periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses faced record levels of stress and burnout. As pandemic stress on hospitals and nursing homes now recedes, will nurse burnout recede as well? Many policymakers assume so. However, Penn School of Nursing’s Rachel French, Karen Lasater, and colleagues find that high rates of burnout and intent to leave existed before the first COVID-19 patients ever entered U.S. hospitals and nursing homes.

Nurse in full PPE including a face shield.

An analysis of survey data collected December 2019 through February 2020 from 33,462 registered nurses (RNs) in New York and Illinois reveals that more than 40% of RNs reported high burnout. Results published in The Journal of Nursing Regulation, show one in four were also dissatisfied with their job, and one in five planned to leave their employer within one year (one in three among nursing home RNs). In addition, over half (56%) of RNs reported not having enough staff to get their work done, 68% rated care quality at their workplace as less-than-excellent, and 31% of hospital RNs gave their hospital an unfavorable patient safety rating.

Burnout isn’t just a personal issue for RNs—it is a persistent threat to public health. Evidence shows that in hospitals with higher rates of RN burnout, patient safety is threatened and patients have higher odds of dying. The research concludes that RNs in hospitals and nursing homes experienced poor working conditions, high burnout, and poor patient safety and care quality even before the COVID-19 pandemic are a sobering reminder that our goal should not be to return to the pre-pandemic “normal.” Meaningful policy action via minimum nurse staffing standards needs to be enacted to reduce ongoing nurse burnout and improve the quality and safety of healthcare for Americans.

This story is by Rachel French and Karen Lasater. Read more at Penn LDI.