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Pandemic stress felt by nurses impacting patient care, study shows

Some 10,000 working B.C. nurses were asked to assess their anxiety, depression, PTSD and burnout.
stressed nurse
A new study out of UBC says nurses' mental health should be tracked over time and publicly reported.

As the pandemic approaches two years, a UBC study has found links between stress experienced by frontline nurses and the quality of care provided to patients.

The study, headed by assistant professor of nursing Farinaz Havaei, found that the more severe the mental health symptoms reported by nurses, the more likely they will rate the quality of care and safety in hospitals, long-term care homes and community health centres as poor.

“Providing safe, quality patient care is impossible without a healthy nursing workforce,” Havaei said. “We should pay close attention to work environment factors such as heavy workloads and inadequate staffing that are known risk factors to nurses’ mental health.”

Cecilia Yeung, a nurse who has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said her colleagues are exhausted both emotionally and physically. 

"My co-worker, who has been an intensive care (ICU) nurse all her life, told me recently that she is getting tired and looking for an office job,” Yeung said. “I have never once heard her saying she's tired. She is always full of energy. I am sad to hear that ICU will lose another dedicated loving nurse. It's unfortunate that the system has failed us.”

Yeung said the hardships Havaei discusses do impact nurses’ mental health.

“Those are all real,” she said. “I worry about my colleagues, especially when they mention trauma has become both physical and psychological. I am not sure how I can help my colleagues. I feel helpless and defeated.”

Research drew on surveys of 10,000 working B.C. nurses in two survey periods — before the pandemic (December 2019) and during (June 2020).

They were asked to assess their anxiety, depression, PTSD and burnout.

They were also asked to rate the overall safety of their work unit, the general quality of nursing care they delivered to patients, and how likely they would recommend their unit to friends and family for care.

What the study found is that nurses rated quality of care during the pandemic lower compared to the pre-pandemic period.

For example, when nurses reported high emotional exhaustion, quality and safety of patient care delivery ratings dropped eightfold.

Havaei said the study recommends nurses’ mental health should be included as part of a comprehensive set of quality indicators in hospitals, tracked over time and publicly reported.

“Patients and members of the public can then use the information to identify high-performing health-care organizations,” Havaei said.

“Nurse have been on the front lines of our COVID-19 response for more than two years now. We urgently need to protect their mental health for their well-being and that of the communities that they serve,” she said.

The study is one of the first of its kind in B.C., and was published recently in the Healthcare journal. 

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