Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization designated the year 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife to honor the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and to emphasize the vital role that nurses play in global healthcare. Little did the world know how important a role nurses would play in the largest pandemic of our lifetimes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to nurses around the world but has also brought opportunities for achievements and innovations. Nurses have always grown under pressure, and there has been no lack of challenges for nurses throughout this chaotic and uncertain year.
1) Shifting Practice Paradigms
The only thing that nurses have been certain of in 2020 is uncertainty. From running out of necessary supplies to changing workflows, everything that nurses have typically taken for granted has changed. Some of these changes have been small, changes like using different brands of PPE than they may be accustomed to. Others have been much larger, like having to consider the ethical implications of prioritizing care when resources restrict the ability to provide care to everyone.
Regardless of the types of changes, change has a been a constant. Nurses have had to adjust, sometimes multiple times in a shift, and have been forced to constantly adapt to shifting circumstances. The ever-present flux in practice and workflow has pushed nurses’ natural flexibility and problem-solving skills beyond their comfort levels but has also made them stronger as a result. The experience and newfound flexibility that 2020 has forced on the nursing profession will be a meaningful asset to nurses once the pandemic is over.
The long shifts and physically and emotionally draining work that nurses do often leads to burnout, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes of 2020 have made burnout an even bigger factor. One of the most significant preventative factors for burnout has been taking the time outside of work to recuperate and spend time with family or friends. This avenue for preventing burnout has become severely restricted as nurses take less and less time for themselves with the heavier workload the pandemic provides. Additionally, the time they do have to themselves is now less rejuvenating as lockdowns and social distancing make socializing and relaxing more difficult for everyone.
In addition to the normal risk of burnout, the probability of getting COVID-19 while constantly treating patients who are infected with this deadly virus wears on nurses in a way that most people will not understand. Nurses see the sickest of these patients, and they are more aware of the worst case scenarios that can occur while also being constantly exposed to potentially getting this deadly illness.
Nurses respond to crisis by pulling together and pushing harder. This has been one of nursing’s greatest strengths during the pandemic but has also been a weakness as the prolonged and emotionally difficult work constantly continues without meaningful reprieve. Nurses and nurse leaders have tried to offset some of these difficulties by instituting workplace-based burnout mitigation interventions, but these only have limited effects. Ultimately, burnout will continue to be a challenge for nursing until the pandemic abates.
3) Information Fatigue
Information about COVID-19 has grown from nothing at the beginning of 2020 to more than anyone could possibly stay up to date with. Information about how COVID-19 is treated, how COVID-19 testing works, what testing methods don’t work, how the vaccines will affect patients, and much more has been constantly changing and expanding. In addition to keeping up with the workload of the pandemic, nurses are faced with a growing body of information that they must sort through and understand.
Nurses have always been focused on educating their patients and the public, but the changing and sometimes uncertain information about COVID-19 has made this a challenge. As a group that is expected to know the answers, nurses are finding it difficult to keep up with the latest information and provide correct and helpful information. While this challenge has presented difficulties, nurses have risen to the challenge and have learned to digest and sort information from a variety of sources, all while staying abreast of the latest developments.
4) COVID-19 Centricity
It is easy to forget now as 2020 draws to its conclusion, but at the end of 2019, most people had plans for 2020. Nurses had educational aspirations, certifications they hoped to pursue, or leadership opportunities they were hoping to achieve. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted attention from these personal and professional growth plans and denied many nurses the opportunities to achieve new things and take the next steps in their career.
While nurses have selflessly given themselves for the greater good of the public during the pandemic, many of their non-COVID-19 related goals and plans have suffered or been forgotten. With all the attention on the pandemic, everything outside of its scope can be forgotten and many nurses have found it challenging to continue to pursue education or opportunities outside of the context of the global pandemic.
Nurses have certainly faced many unexpected challenges in 2020, but these challenges, like most challenges nurses face, will help them to grow. The difficulties of the pandemic will lead to growth and experience that will serve them.