Nurse Burnout, “We Didn’t Sign Up For This”
When the media named 2020 “The Year of the Nurse,” it drew attention to the hard work and sacrifice this profession has endured, yet there are so many aspects the general public will never be able to understand or empathize with. As with many worldwide, nurses sat with great anticipation for the relief that 2021 would bring with it. But with the highest COVID death rates this week, nurses feel as though we have woken up on Groundhog’s Day yet again to experience “The Year of the Nurse” on a perpetual repeat. As with most jobs throughout this past year, nurses have had to make significant adjustments in their workflow. However, unlike so many other jobs, nurses have sustained significant emotional, physical, and mental fatigue that many worry will have significant effects on the future of nursing.
Nurses have walked out of the hospital shift after shift questioning why they ever entered this profession to begin with. We have questioned whether we can muster the strength to will ourselves to open our car doors and walk into the building for one more shift. Yet the most frustrating and dangerous question of all, might be that we wonder whether or not we are even making a difference during this time.
There is no greater feeling of failure than looking helplessly around a hospital unit at the tired and weary faces of one’s coworkers and patients and feeling like our efforts are futile. The fundamental basis and the core of nursing is defined as helping other people during a time of physical and emotional need, but this year it feels like we have failed at times despite our best efforts. We have been battling the emotional complexities of mourning incomprehensible loss during the dusk, while assembling all of our available energy to be strong for the public and welcome glimmers of hope at dawn.
There is an overarching saying ringing through break rooms and side discussions between nurses that says “we didn’t sign up for this.” Although this can sound like a meager cop-out to an outsider, nurses are saying it through tear-stained, chapped, dehydrated, and exhausted faces. Although many within the nursing profession have had adequate training and experience with critically ill and dying patients, this year has abolished the typical “normal” and replaced it with grief and tragedy beyond understanding.
Sure, we signed up to hold the hand and be a witness to a man’s last breath. But we didn’t sign up to be the replacement for their family during these sacred moments.
- We didn’t sign up to hold a tablet up to the face of a grandma while her 4 and 6 year old grandkids begged her not to die.
- We didn’t sign up to be a woman’s labor partner as her family sits helpless in the parking lot unable to witness the first cry of their baby’s life.
- We didn’t sign up to wear the same N95 for 30 days straight and get a pizza as a reward.
- We didn’t sign up to see our coworkers contract the same illness we are all battling and then spend months as a patient on our unit before passing away.
- We didn’t sign up to be floated to a critical unit with no training and told to “figure it out” all while managing twice the mandated nurse to patient ratios.
- We didn’t sign up to putting our license on the line because there simply are not enough nurses to cover the amount of patients in the hospital.
- We didn’t sign up to be furloughed for a month, and then mandated to work overtime within weeks of each other.
This year has been far from easy. The large majority of nurses will say that it has been the hardest year in our profession bar none. Although we take refuge in the hope that accompanies the vaccine, we also hesitantly dare to dream about what the future of nursing looks like.
Some are predicting a mass exodus from bedside nursing due to the sheer burnout that we have endured this year. Students live in fear that they will not receive adequate training due to low staffing volume, which could result in grave errors as a result of lack of preparation. Management fears that the fiscal deficit they have encountered this year will lead to even more work with even less reward for their nurses. Most of us, however, chose this profession for reasons greater than COVID can defeat. We are walking mindfully, hesitantly, covered in PPE into the future with great hope that our hospitals will soon look like “the good ‘ol days,” and praying that we will one day wake up and hand the “Hero of the Year” award to someone else.
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