Nursing students prepared for an environment with burnout, staffing shortages

Nursing schools are preparing students to head into an environment that has been largely affected by pandemic burnout and staffing shortages.

"Our students are going into an environment now where they're really needed," said Christine Mueller, the senior executive associate dean for academic programs at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing.

Applications are the highest they've ever been at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing, but Mueller said increasing enrollment isn't an option due to a lack of faculty and clinical sites.

Still, the need for nurses continues to grow.

"We need nursing educators to educate our nurses. So, as you can see, it's a cycle," explained Jennifer Gall Frank, an associate professor at Rasmussen University.

A nursing workforce analysis, published earlier this year in Health Affairs, found that the number of registered nurses decreased by more than 100,000 from 2020 to 2021 – the largest drop ever observed over the past four decades. A significant number of nurses leaving the workforce were under the age of 35, and most were employed in hospitals.

"Some (nurses) are retiring early. Some of them are choosing to, maybe, take a break from the profession. Some of them, maybe, are even leaving the profession. So it's a pretty dire situation in that there's a great need for nurses," Mueller said.

That's a "double-edged sword," said Ann Purcell, a nursing student at Rasmussen University's Bloomington campus: job security but at the cost of potential burnout.

"(Our faculty) have spoke to it enough so that we're aware of it and we're not going in with rose-colored glasses but not too much where we're going to be terrified and drop out of nursing school," Purcell said.

Earlier this year, 15,000 nurses with the Minnesota Nurses Association walked off the job, largely due to working conditions. This month, they weighed a second potential strike before ultimately reaching a deal with hospital executives.

Like most nurses, Purcell’s goal is to help patients. She started school in 2021, after watching her mom working on the front lines during the pandemic.

"My grandma became a nurse after raising 14 children. My mom became a nurse while I was in middle school, so I watched her go through everything and still decided that I wanted to do this," she explained.

The goal of any nursing school is to prepare quality, competent nurses whether that's at a hospital, long-term care facility or other health care setting.

For educators, that means asking questions to help students find the best fit.

"We will talk about hospital system leaders. Who are the leaders in place? What's the mission of the setting, of the facility – their philosophy. We will talk about staffing ratios. We will also get them to think about sentinel events, which are, for example, medication errors, re-admittance after discharge, also fall risks. What's their safety record?" Gall Frank said.

A spokesperson for Rasmussen University said its Bloomington campus also experienced significant demand before and during the pandemic. For the first time, the campus voluntarily cap enrollment, amid staffing concerns and a lack of clinical sites.

However, the challenges lie not just in recruiting nurses but also retaining them.

Mueller said educators at the University of Minnesota have put more of a focus on teaching nurses how to care for themselves, using strategies like meditation and understanding how to handle stress. They want to prevent nurses from leaving the profession after their first year.

"The statistics are also suggesting that the turnover, or the leaving the profession shortly after they enter it, is a little alarming," she said.