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Letter from Lynnette Vehrs, WSNA president

The profession of nursing has always been challenging, but now it has become dangerous as well. The COVID-19 virus has changed the landscape altogether. We continue to see surge after surge of increased cases and deaths. Nurses are facing severe burnout and fatigue as the pandemic rages on.

This story was published in the Winter 2022 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

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Lynnette Vehrs, MN, RN, WSNA President

The profession of nursing has always been challenging, but now it has become dangerous as well. The COVID-19 virus has changed the landscape altogether. We continue to see surge after surge of increased cases and deaths. Nurses are facing severe burnout and fatigue as the pandemic rages on. We are fearful for our own lives along with the lives of our families and our patients.

In October 2021, the American Nurses Foundation released findings from its new mental health and wellness survey of more than 9,500 nurses, “Pulse on the Nation’s Nurses COVID-19 Survey Series: Mental Health and Wellness.” As the pandemic approaches the two-year mark, nurses report they continue to endure the negative impacts of the coronavirus on their mental health and well-being — and the adverse side effects have increased significantly over the past year. According to the survey, more than 34% of nurses rated their emotional health as poor. Most nurses surveyed said they have felt stressed (75%), frustrated (68%) and overwhelmed (62%). Close to half (42%) of nurse respondents answered “yes” when asked if they have had an extremely stressful, disturbing or traumatic experience due to COVID-19.

The profession of nursing has always been challenging, but now it has become dangerous as well.”

The lessons we are learning are fundamental to the nurse staffing crisis we now face. Now, don’t get me wrong; we have known about staffing problems for years. However, it has been exacerbated by the fallout of the coronavirus. Nurses are retiring early and even leaving the profession due to the emotional strain of working through this pandemic. Hospitals and health care agencies are asking our nurses to work longer hours, without the safe staffing support they need. Nurses are doing tasks such as passing meal trays, cleaning rooms and comforting patients that other staff or family and friends usually do.

The question is, “What about staffing?” This legislative session, WSNA will once again work at finding feasible solutions to this question. In 2017, we passed a bill that was jointly developed and supported with other nurses unions and the Washington State Hospital Association. We were excited about establishing staffing committees with staff nurse representation that would create plans for their facilities. Unfortunately, this did not always work due to a variety of reasons. We know that a large part of our burnout, frustration and high stress is a lack of safe staffing. Nurses are not feeling heard. Many hospitals and other facilities are trying to retain the nurses they have and recruit nurses that are looking for new jobs — work they should have been doing many months ago. Some facilities are giving bonuses to nurses who stay and sign-on bonuses for nurses hired. Then there are travel nurses that are augmenting staff nurses. Travel nurses are appreciated; however, realizing how much more they are earning can lead to resentment. Hospital RNs are quitting to become traveling nurses. I don’t blame them.

I am also concerned about our long-term care communities. The staffing ratios are often poor and the pay is low. This is difficult work and needs to be adequately supported.

I am proud of my profession and the many nurses and health care workers who have stepped up. Now we need everyone to step up and meet the needs of our nurses who have been through so much. WSNA will always be leading nurses’ efforts to meet the problems with solutions.

WSNA has your back!