What’s Really Behind the Nursing Shortage? 1,500 Nurses Share Their Stories

7 Min Read Published October 10, 2022
What’s Really Behind the Nursing Shortage? 1,500 Nurses Share Their Stories

Winner of the Gold Award for the Digital Health Awards, Best Media/Publications Article, Spring 2022

Update 10/10/2022

The findings of Nurse.org's 2021 State of Nursing Survey revealed some harsh truths about the profession but also spoke to the strength, perseverance, and passion that nurses have for their work. Nurse.org has relaunched the State of Nursing survey in 2022 with the aim to capture a complete picture of the true state of the profession - from how nurses feel about work, how nurses are being treated, how nurses feel about the future of nursing, nurse's mental wellbeing and what nurses think needs to change within the profession. Take the survey now (it takes less than 10 minutes.)

>> Take Nurse.org's NEW 2022 "State of Nursing Survey" and let your voice be heard about issues in nursing that matter most. 

January 26, 2022

If the past two years have taught the world anything, it's that nurses are NOT okay. The truth is that despite the 7 pm cheers, the commercials thanking nurses for their dedication and selflessness, and the free food from major retailers – the overwhelming majority of nurses are burnt out, underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated.  

With millions of nurses worldwide, Nurse.org wanted to truly understand the current state of nursing and give nurses a voice to share their thoughts, feelings, and apprehensions about the nursing profession. We surveyed nearly 1,500 nurses to find out how they felt about the past year and get to the real reasons behind the nursing shortage. The responses were heartbreaking, but not without hope.  

What We Found: Nurses Are Struggling

Nurses are struggling. Regardless of practice specialty, age, or state of practice – the answers were all the same. Nurses, NPs, and APRNs are all struggling and need help.  

Only 12% of the nurses surveyed are happy where they are and interestingly, 36% would like to stay in their current positions but changes would need to be made for that to happen. Nurses report wanting safe staffing, safer patient ratio assignments, and increased pay in order to stay in their current roles.  

Nurses didn’t hold back when discussing their feelings regarding the current state of nursing:  

  • 87% feel burnt out 
  • 84% are frustrated with administrators 
  • 84% feel they are underpaid 
  • 83% feel their mental health has suffered 
  • 77% feel unsupported at work 
  • 61% feel unappreciated 
  • 60% have felt uncomfortable having to work outside of their comfort zone in the past year 
  • 58% of nurses have felt frustrated with their patients 
  • 58% of nurses have felt unsafe at work in the past year 

The numbers don’t lie. It’s astounding that a profession continually recognized for its compassion, strength, and resilience is suffering. And the suffering is universal.  

One nurse responded with the following, “I have been an RN for 34 years and in my specialty of nursing for 31 years and I am burned out.” 

What Is the Nursing Shortage and Why is it Happening?

You’ve likely heard about the nursing shortage, but what does that mean and why is it happening? 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030.  Approximately 194,500 openings for registered nurses are projected each year, on average, over the decade. However, this number was projected prior to the pandemic, and before the mass exodus of bedside clinical nurses. As a result, it’s likely substantially lower than what the real demand for nurses will look like.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) reports that the increased need for nurses spans beyond the current pandemic. In fact, they sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on September 1, 2021, urging the country to declare the current and unsustainable nurse staffing shortage to be a national crisis. 

The ANA attributes the needs for thousands of nurses to the following:  

  • The Affordable Care Act made access to health care services possible for more people
  • Increased focus “primary care, prevention, wellness, and chronic disease management” 
  • Aging baby-boomer population
  • Growing interest in community-based care

Why Are Nurses Really Leaving The Bedside? 

However, those stats don’t address some of the systemic issues nurses face every day, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. That’s why we asked nurses why they are really leaving the bedside.

What we heard is that, overwhelmingly, the number one reason nurses want to leave the bedside is because of unsafe staffing ratios. This leads to a never-ending cycle of shortages: nurses face unsafe staffing ratios so they decide to leave the bedside, this results in even fewer nurses available to care for patients, so the downward cycle continues.

Essentially, nurses are dealing with an increased workload with fewer resources. Typically, pre-covid ICU nurses would experience a 1:1 or 2:1 patient-to-nurse ratio. Now ICU nurses throughout the country are experiencing a 3:1 or 4:1 patient-to-nurse ratio which exacerbates staff burnout and unsafe nursing practices.  

One nurse reported, “With increased patient census, staffing ratios are very unsafe especially with high acuity patients. Having 4+ critically ill patients not only puts licenses at risk but the patients do not benefit at all. We’re just running around doing tasks, not providing adequate care.”

Unsafe Staffing Ratios Are Just Part of the Problem

While a big piece of the puzzle, unsafe staffing issues are, unfortunately, one part of a long list of issues plaguing nurses today. 

 Nurses are leaving the bedside because of issues like: 

  • Inadequate staffing ratios 
  • Not getting equal pay for equal experience 
  • Not receiving hazard pay during a pandemic 
  • Not having adequate back up 
  • An inability to take breaks, sick days, or even turn down extra shifts 

To learn more about the nursing shortage and learn ways you can get involved, check out the full report here

Despite All This, Nurses Still Have Hope

70% of nurses still think that nursing is a great career and 64% still think that new nurses should join the profession. 

“If you’re a student considering becoming a nurse, please know that you are not walking into a doomed profession. You will never meet anyone who is more determined, more resourceful, or more ready to jump in and lend a helping hand than a nurse." 

--– Nurse Alice Benjamin, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, FNP-C, CCRN, CEN, CV-BC, Chief Nursing Officer and Correspondent at Nurse.org

If you’re a nurse, you know that nursing isn’t just a profession, it’s a calling. It’s devastating to see that so many nurses are suffering in their quest to heal and give care, but it’s heartening to know they are not without hope. 

What Nurses Need Now 

If you’re a nurse, know that your job is simply to put yourself first. If we want to solve the nursing shortage (and we do!), it can't happen without nurses recognizing that they are NOT the problem. 

"The problem is not with nurses or nursing; the problem is that nurses have been so busy taking care of others that no one has taken care of them. And we’re here to change that--and by entering the nursing profession, you will be part of the solution too”

 – Nurse Alice Benjamin, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, FNP-C, CCRN, CEN, CV-BC, Chief Nursing Officer and Correspondent at Nurse.org 

The truth is nurses need a lot more to be incentivized to stay practicing clinically at the bedside. Nurses reported needing:  

  • Higher pay 
  • Safe nurse-to-patient ratios 
  • Hazard pay 
  • REAL mental health resources 
  • Adequate staff support 
  • Support programs for new nurses

4 Ways to Support Nurses and Take Action

While we may not be able to make this change at an individual level, collectively, we can amplify the voice of nurses and shed some light on the issues that they are facing every day. Together, we have the power to create meaningful, lasting change for current and future nurses.  Here's how to get involved: 

1. Sign the Pledge

Sign the pledge seen below and encourage your friends & colleagues to do the same. While you’re at it, print it out and post it in your break room. 

2. Spread the Word 

Change can’t happen unless we get the word out about what’s really going on. Share what you’ve heard and what you’ve experienced, and encourage others to do the same. 

3. Contact Your Elected Officials 

It’s time for elected officials to stand up for nurses. Write them a letter. Call their office. Demand change for nurses. Click here to get the contact information for your local and state Officials. 

4. Download and Share the Report

Get even more in-depth insights into what’s going on with the state of nursing and the issues that nurses face today, click here to download the full State of Nursing report or read about the best and worst specialties for nurses during COVID

“If you are a current nurse considering leaving the profession, be assured that you are not alone in your struggles. If all you’ve had the energy for is keeping your head down and getting through your shifts, sleeping, and getting up to do it all over again, know that you are doing enough. It’s not your responsibility to solve the nursing shortage.” 

– Nurse Alice Benjamin, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, FNP-C, CCRN, CEN, CV-BC, Chief Nursing Officer and Correspondent at Nurse.org 

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Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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