What’s behind the nursing shortage?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the nursing profession struggled with turnover stemming from a combination of limited staff, heavy workloads, and emotional toll. When the pandemic surged, the increased exposure to mortality and the risk to nurses’ health only heightened existing problems. Taking on longer hours, additional responsibilities, and heavier emotional strain exacerbated burnout. It also led many full-time nurses to turn to travel nursing, using a change of scenery, higher pay, and short contracts to attempt to renew their passion for the profession.
Real numbers can put the problem into perspective. According to research from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing in April 2023, 45.1% of surveyed nurses reported feeling “burned out,” 49.7% are “fatigued,” and more than 50% are “drained” or “used up.” Consequently, around one-fifth of all nurses nationwide may leave the profession by 2027.
In a 2022 interview with Healthcare IT News, Shawn Sefton, a registered nurse and the Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Client Services at healthcare analytics company Hospital IQ, summarized the circumstances succinctly: “Decades of thinking about nurses as commodities — and not people with irreplaceable institutional knowledge — [have] led to empty shelves in hospitals and nursing schools.”
How Continuing Education Can Attract and Retain Skilled Nurses
When healthcare leaders promote continuing education for their nursing staff, they communicate to nurses the opposite of what Sefton described. In doing so, leadership may encourage nurses to remain with the organization using the following approaches:
- Upskilling: One of the primary purposes of continuing education is upskilling, or the acquisition of additional skills, as it educates clinicians on advances, changes, and other developments relevant to their field. Upskilling can help to alleviate some of the challenges inherent to the nursing field by making the job easier. Consider the proliferation of healthcare technology in nursing practice. Staying current on the latest electronic health record (EHR) features, for example, can help ensure better patient outcomes while streamlining workflows, relieving nurses of some stress and freeing them of certain time-consuming tasks.
- Engagement: Aside from demonstrating the employer’s interest in the staff’s professional development, continuing education can promote engagement by reinvigorating nurses’ passion for their profession. Learning itself is often a great motivator because the feeling of accomplishment can boost an individual’s feelings of confidence and self-worth. Nurses have a diverse selection of continuing education opportunities. Enabling them to benefit from intriguing, meaningful courses can increase their likelihood of carrying renewed professional enthusiasm back to the workplace and approaching duties with a renewed sense of purpose.
- Advancement Opportunities: With new skills and renewed enthusiasm, a nurse who takes advantage of continuing education opportunities is likely better qualified to compete for more lucrative nursing roles. Certifying programs may be eligible for continuing education, providing learners with formal credentials that command higher salaries and an incentive for staying committed to nursing.
How to Promote Continuing Education among Nurses
How can leadership empower nurses to pursue relevant and exciting continuing education? Consider the following strategies:
- Shared Governance: Shared governance refers to an institutional model in which members collaborate in decision-making and determining policies. While shared governance doesn’t relate directly to continuing education, it does help promote engagement with the organization, which is fundamental for fostering accountability for professional development.
- Motivational Interviewing: Motivational interviewing is a mentoring style that involves discussing exact needs and motivations. It requires judgment-free, active listening to extract relevant information leaders can use to direct nurses to educational resources that benefit them.
- Removing Barriers to Access: Continuing education can work as a retention tool if it goes beyond what nurses minimally need to retain their licensure. However, many nurses may find learning prohibitive because of cost and time commitments. Leaders can remove such barriers by creating in-house continuing education programs, offering stipends, and allowing time off to pursue learning opportunities.
Retaining an experienced nursing staff is as important as recruiting new staff. It’s also much more cost-effective, when comparing the two. Investing in your employees’ professional development shows that you value them, and it can benefit your entire organization with increased engagement and even better patient care.
To read more about alternative and sustainable staffing solutions to address nursing shortages, read our guide here: Beyond Travel Nursing: Sustainable Staffing Solutions to Address Nursing Shortages