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nurse donning face maskIn follow-up interviews as a part of a study into the pandemic’s effects on local nurses working on both sides of the border, many who haven’t already left the profession say they are looking for a way out.

Study finds pandemic driving nurses out of the profession

Nurses are exhausted.

Follow-up interviews that were part of a University of Windsor study into the pandemic’s effect on local nurses has found many of them have left the profession in the past year, while others said they were counting down the days to retirement.

“Most nurses we spoke to were tired, depressed, angry, and looking to get out, if they hadn't left already,” said UWindsor researcher Dana Ménard, one of four UWindsor faculty members conducting the study.

“They are burnt out and beaten down.”

The research project began in 2020 with interviews of 36 registered nurses working in Windsor or Michigan. The research team of psychology professors Dr. Ménard and Kendall Soucie and nursing professors Jody Ralph and Laurie Freeman re-interviewed 19 of the nurses in recent weeks. In some cases, the interviews were precisely one year apart.

“These interviews were grimmer,” Ménard said.

Nurses said they felt “disposable, replaceable, and expendable.” They themselves or their colleagues had taken early retirement, stress leaves, or had switched jobs.

Even though COVID numbers are on the decrease, the workload for nurses hasn’t gone down, Ménard explained. There are fewer COVID patients, but each is spending more time in hospital.

At some hospitals, pandemic measures included the cancellation of elective surgeries or shutting down entire units and redeploying the staff. Hospitals are now trying to address that backlog.

“Nurses are telling us, ‘We can’t catch our breath.’ They haven’t been able to take time off, or if they did, they felt guilty doing so. ‘Reaching our breaking point’ was the wording we heard.”

Nurses were asked about their experiences over the last year, contributors to their stress, and coping strategies.

A common theme was anger at anti-vaccination campaigns. Some reported caring for COVID patients whose families were participating in anti-mask rallies. Some nurses said they were so fed up with conspiracy theorists that they had deleted their social media accounts so they wouldn’t see demoralizing anti-vax messages.

Early in the pandemic, nurses were hailed as heroes, Ménard said. That narrative was short-lived. Free parking was revoked as was emergency pay. For nurses working in the U.S., there were employer cuts to pensions.

There’s also resentment about wage disparities.

“New nurses are being hired with gigantic bonuses, but there's no retention money for people who have been weathering this misery for over a year,” Ménard said. Travel nurses brought in by hospitals were paid higher rates than regular employees.

But all was not bleak.

“Vaccines were bright spots,” Ménard said. While the researchers didn’t ask the nurses whether they’d been vaccinated, all voluntarily reported getting their vaccines early.

As they told the researchers a year ago, nurses were still turning to each other — their “work families” — to cope. Some had taken up new hobbies. Early in the pandemic, they may have begun eating or drinking too much, but have now resumed more healthy lifestyles.

The research team hopes to find grants to reconnect with the nurses in three to five years to see how the pandemic has affected them in the longer term.

—Sarah Sacheli