By Julia Snyder

Across New Jersey, healthcare facilities are facing a shortage of nurses as the profession struggles to sustain its workforce.  About one-third of nurses have left clinical care at hospitals across NJ in the past three years.  A workforce supply and demand report published in January 2023 from the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing projected that the registered nurse workforce will decrease by 5% from 2022 to 2025 as nurses leave the profession and fewer than needed enter.  Several factors contribute to this nursing shortage including heavy workloads, a lack of safe staffing standards, burnout exacerbated by the pandemic, and inadequate training capacity for new nurses.

The COVID-19 pandemic intensified and highlighted the realities of working as a nurse, particularly during a crisis in the U.S. healthcare system.  Unfortunately, healthcare workers, especially bedside nurses, are often burdened by stress from heavy workloads, long hours, and emotionally difficult work.  A survey from the American Nurses Foundation found that 60% of respondents felt frustrated and 49% felt overwhelmed in the last two weeks, a glimpse of the burnout felt by nurses throughout the country.  This burnout and job dissatisfaction are some of the factors which have led nurses to early retirement and transitioning to non-clinical roles, leaving vacancies in their wake.

One of the factors leading to burnout is heavy individual workload.  With high demand for healthcare services, an aging population, and a limited workforce, nurses are caring for more and more patients at one time.  High patient assignments can lead to increased stress and job dissatisfaction for nurses and poorer outcomes for patients.  Research has demonstrated that nurses play a critical role in patient safety and low nurse-to-patient ratios and understaffing can lead to increased errors and worse patient outcomes.  In May, nurses gathered at the statehouse in Trenton along with the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union to advocate for safe staffing legislation. The proposed legislation, NJ Bill S304, would create minimum enforceable standards for staffing in hospitals and healthcare facilities in alignment with recommended safe staffing ratios.

The limited pipeline of new nurses entering the field is not from a lack of interest; many nursing schools cannot support the number of qualified applicants they receive. The schools lack qualified faculty, hands-on clinical training opportunities, and available resources to take on more students.  However, nursing schools are making efforts to increase their capacity. The Rutgers School of Nursing recently received a federal grant to help expand its simulation program, hoping to provide more opportunities for hands-on clinical training that will allow it to admit more students.  Funding was also recently announced for the Sister Claire Tynan School of Nursing in Englewood Cliffs to increase its class size. Additional initiatives to attract and retain nurses include legislation to increase eligibility for student loan redemption programs and expanded partnerships between nursing schools and healthcare systems that support transition-to-practice programs to help support new nurses and provide affordable opportunities for employee continuing education.  As advocates push for solutions to curb the immediate nurse shortage, these solutions must improve working conditions and educational infrastructure to sustain the workforce long-term and support a healthy population.