The weight nurses have been carrying since the COVID-19 pandemic began is having an effect that one associate professor likens to post traumatic stress disorder.
“They talk about the pandemic like it’s a war,” says Associate Professor Candace Burton, who is studying the impact of the pandemic on frontline nurses.
“They’re talking about torture. They’re not just talking about themselves, but what happens to their patients.”
Burton, a nurse scientist whose research focuses on trauma and violence, says these stories are similar to those of survivors of violence and abuse.
“The trauma is just as intense, and they are suffering just as much.”
Bedside nurses have been fighting on the front lines of a global pandemic for more than 18 months.
Working long hours with a high volume of seriously ill patients during multiple surges, witnessing death multiple times a day, and worrying one will bring the virus home to loved ones has stretched them to their very limits, Burton says.
She has been studying the nature and consequence of moral injury among frontline nurses during COVID-19 with Drs. Alyson Zalta, associate professor of psychological science and Danisha Jenkins, UCI nursing alum PhD (‘21). The interdisciplinary study is supported by funding from UCI’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Science and is a collaboration with HealthImpact and the American Nurses Association of California (ANA/C).
The team is collecting both quantitative and qualitative data on the devastating experiences of frontline nurses. Study participants report new onset anxiety, depression, substance abuse and compassion fatigue, which they believe are a result of their pandemic experiences.
“They’re just numb,” Burton says. “They have panic attacks when they think about going to work. The nurses are not okay.”
A nursing exodus
The trauma of pandemic nursing has led many to leave their clinical positions. Some move into another area of nursing, while others switch to an entirely new career. The exodus is happening at an already bad time for the profession: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a deficit of 1 million nurses by 2026.
The fact that nurses are leaving should alarm people.
“If you want somebody to look after you or your family member when you’re sick, then you need to care about this,” Burton urges.
The healthcare system is also facing increasing demand.
“We have an aging Baby Boomer generation. We’re still in the middle of a global pandemic,” Burton says. “We have an enormous need for nurses.”