The down side of nursing is the flip side of the great need for more nurses. The shortage of nurses means that hospitals and other care facilities may by chronically understaffed, which puts the work overload squarely on the shoulders of the nurses who are there. Patient numbers are increasing, while numbers of nurses are not growing fast enough. This makes the profession harder for those who enter and stay in nursing. The shortage itself contributes to more shortages through attrition—people leaving the profession out of exhaustion and burnout.
Nursing entails long hours, high demands and stress. Some nurses complain that doctors, administrators and even other stressed-out nurses treat them with a certain amount of disdain. Nursing is a demanding profession. A nurse cannot “slough off” in any way, or a patient’s health or life may be in danger. A nurse must perform at peak no matter how tired he or she is, no matter what may be happening at home, no matter how understaffed the care facility is.
A study by the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s online magazine, Quality/Equality (2003) noted that “failure-to-rescue” occurred more often in hospitals where the ratio of patients to nurses was high and thus nurses were overburdened and overstressed.
Studies cited by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have found associations between low nurse staffing levels and increased infections in patients, including hospital-acquired pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. What is more, in care facilities where there is a high patient to nurse ratio, everything from ulcers, heart attacks and complications due to medications error—and even patient falls—increase (Needleman & Buerhaus, 2003).
One of the main factors that makes the nursing profession so desirable as a career—the sheer need for nurses—is also a factor that contributes to the well-known nurses’ syndrome of “burn-out”. A Google search for the term “nursing burn-out” yields 1, 580,000 results. Becoming discouraged, overwhelmed, and exhausted in a way that sleep cannot cure, becoming disillusioned with one’s calling, feeling under-appreciated, overworked and trapped are not uncommon among people in the highly demanding field of nursing.
Nurses will admit that the occasional opportunity to hold a grateful patient’s hand during a crisis, the occasional thanks of patients’ families for the care given, the visible change in a patient who is receiving comfort from a nurse can make up for a lot. Such moments make it all worthwhile.
At the same time, nursing is a profession that requires a lot of giving and a lot of responsibility. It also requires coping with paperwork, administrative bureaucracy, red tape and being short-staffed.
Because of the shortage of nurses, a conscientious nurse may feel the pull of the endless need like a giant vacuum sucking his or her energy, leading to burn-out. Nurses need to understand that the first person they need to take care of is themselves. If they give themselves the same attention and care they give to their patients, they can avoid burn-out and continue to enjoy this rewarding and respected career.