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Nurse burnout reaches new high as latest Omicron variant surges

A child crosses the street behind a Boston Children’s Hospital sign in Boston, Mass. on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.SOPHIE PARK/NYT

Many people may be moving on from Covid, but nurses certainly aren’t - and as the latest variant sweeps the U.S., the mental stresses on the profession have reached new highs.

A survey of 2,500 nurses released Wednesday finds that 64% are looking to leave the health-care profession, a nearly 40% increase from a similar survey a year ago. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they've experienced burnout since the pandemic began and half said they had experienced feelings of trauma, extreme stress or PTSD.

"Our nurses are the backbone of our health system," said Dr. Dani Bowie the vice president of clinical strategy and transformation at Trusted Health, a healthcare advocacy group that released the survey. "So, if they're not operating out of their best state, it's very detrimental to the wellbeing of our community and our patients."

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The pandemic has exacerbated the U.S. nursing shortage as overworked and ill-treated health-care workers have quit en masse. Half of the nurses surveyed by Trusted Health said they had been verbally attacked by patients or their family members; almost a quarter said they'd been physically assaulted.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts an annual average of 194,500 openings for registered nurses through 2030. The data released Wednesday suggests as the pandemic drags on and hospitalizations again tick up things aren't getting any better - only worse.

In March, the American Hospital Association sent a letter to the Department of Justice to support legislation to create federal protections against assault and intimidation for healthcare workers. One study found 44% of healthcare workers experienced verbal and physical harassment in the first few months of the pandemic.

Despite increased attention and the urgency on nurse burnout during the pandemic, almost all nurses surveyed by Trusted Health said their mental health wasn't a priority or that there were inadequate measures in place to support them.

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"As a manager, I really struggled to provide that support to my 85 nurses because I didn't know what my health system provided in regards to caring for the wellbeing and mental health of my nurses," said Bowie, who worked as a nurse for almost a decade. "I was caught up in trying to schedule and staff all the time, so it was a really challenging environment."

“Workplace violence has severe consequences for the entire health care system,” wrote Richard J. Pollack, the president and chief executive officer for the American Hospital Association in a March letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Not only does it cause physical and psychological injury for health care workers, but workplace violence and intimidation make it more difficult for nurses, doctors and other clinical staff to provide quality patient care.”