Nurses dealing with exhaustion, workplace violence during COVID surge

Wednesday marked record number of COVID hospitalizations
Posted at 5:12 PM, Dec 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-29 17:16:22-05

Wednesday marked the record high number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized since the start of the pandemic. The influx of cases is really taking a toll on nurses.

From staffing shortages to increases in violence on the job, a Baltimore ER nurse said the level of extreme burnout is unsustainable, asking for patience, and for people to use ERs for emergencies only.

“We’re tired of working really hard. We’re tired of taking on the emotion toll that’s happening,” said Lena Sutch, the Maryland Emergency Nurses Association president.

There are 2,500 nursing vacancies in Maryland, which is more than usual.

“There has been an exodus from bedside nursing. Either people leaving the field all together or stepping away from hospital care because of the challenges they face in the hospital setting,” said Bob Atlas, the Maryland Hospital Association president.

In general, there is a shortage of healthcare workers, leaving a small staff of nurses to take on the jobs of 5 or 6 people.

“The nurses are left to deal with the social work cases, to deal with the phlebotomy, to clean the rooms,” said Sutch.

Hospitals are turning to travel nurses for extra hands but the demand has created a nationwide bidding war with the agencies setting extremely high prices.

“Hospitals were not losing money in Maryland as recently as a few months ago and now the loses are piling up and it can all be attributed to the increased cost of labor,” said Atlas. “We also think that the agencies that supply the travel nurses are maybe exploiting the opportunity and profiting perhaps to greater degrees than they need to.”

While travel nurses mean the hospital gets staffing and the nurses there get some relief, it’s a double edged sword because they are working next to nurses paid three times more to do the same work.

“A staff nurse all-in salary and benefits might be $50 an hour and a travel nurse is right now easily $120 an hour and we’re seeing instances of it going as high as $175-200 a hour,” said Atlas.

“It’s just adding on to the emotional burden of it. It has a psychological toll,” said Sutch.

Sutch said some hospitals are trying to compensate their staff nurses by offering bonuses if they work overtime.

“We can’t keep working overtime for that amount of time. We are just too exhausted,” said Sutch.

On top of it all, Sutch said the support from the community is no longer there.

“We went from hearing we are heroes to being verbally and physically assaulted,” said Sutch.

Sutch said while workplace violence against nurses isn’t new, it’s drastically increased recently. People upset about long wait times in emergency rooms are taking it out on the nurses.

“Almost every day we’re being cussed out and yelled at. Some people are being physically assaulted. And we’re losing our compassion,” said Sutch.

Sutch said she’d like to see hospitals focus more on mental healthcare. Many are providing therapy for nurses, but it is underutilized.

“They need help. They need to debrief and they need to be able to create a work life balance so that they are able to maintain their jobs at the bedside. If we don’t maintain that work life balance, people are going to leave the bedside, we won’t have hospitals. If there’s no nurses, there’s no beds. There’s nowhere for sick patients to go,” said Sutch.

Sutch wants to remind people to not go to the ER to get tested for COVID. Not only are the waits long, but they don’t have enough test kits.