Supporting Nurses’ Mental Health Can Impact Recruitment and Retention

Understanding how to recruit and retain nurses is a timely challenge, faced by nearly every healthcare organization across the country. Long overdue and brought to even greater focus during the pandemic, the emotional well-being and mental health of care teams can no longer take a backseat. Now more than ever, leaders must prioritize supporting nurses’ mental health.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative, 18% of nurses exhibit symptoms of depression — double the rate within the general population. These numbers have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. One survey found that 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress, 86% reported anxiety, and 75% reported feeling overwhelmed. The survey also indicated that 38% of healthcare workers did not feel they had adequate emotional support. Unfortunately, nurses were even less likely to report having adequate emotional support (45%).

As new nurses enter the workforce or experienced nurses seek out other opportunities, they will take notice of which organizations and leaders are actively supporting nurses’ mental health and well-being.

What matters to nurses

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI) efforts: Healthcare organizations have a growing responsibility to improve DEI efforts not only for their employees, but also to better serve patients and their families. Nurses will feel appreciated by organizations that value DEI improvements that aim to increase female leadership, improve health equity, and address the lack of provider diversity.

One way that a climate of both cultural competence and cultural humility can improve the workplace for your staff is by creating an affirming and welcoming environment for everyone, no matter who they are. A welcoming environment can help nurses better serve diverse patient populations as well as attract more diverse staff to your organization. When non-majority populations among your staff feel embraced for who they are, they will be less likely to leave.

Moral injury awareness: The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extreme pressure on the nursing workforce and, in many settings, has meant that nurses are confronted daily with morally challenging dilemmas. Moral injury represents the disconnect between the values that led them into their profession in the first place and the realities that shape the compromises they must make from day to day, as financial and regulatory imperatives and inadequate care models shift focus away from the vital patient-clinician relationship.

The idea of moral injury provides a lens for understanding why many caregivers are feeling frustrated and unfulfilled in their work as they encounter barriers to providing the highest quality care to their patients. While solving for moral injury does not rest with recruiters or one specific leader, simply acknowledging that nurses are experiencing moral injury can create a baseline of support they previously may not have had.

Psychological safety: In a psychologically safe environment, individuals feel empowered to speak up because they know they will be listened to; they feel safe discussing challenges they are facing because they know they will be supported by their manager and their team; there is zero tolerance for bullying. In turn, individuals make a good faith effort to model behaviors of support and connection with their peers and leaders.

Psychological safety is necessary for the creation of a just culture in which nurses feel that they can speak up to prevent or acknowledge a patient safety event. Finally, psychological safety, especially in the context of mental health challenges stemming from moral injury, removes any stigma associated with seeking help.

Other ways to support nurses’ mental health

Providing education: Education is one of the best ways to support new and veteran nurses alike. Education can help nurses realize that they may be suffering from mental health issues while also destigmatizing anxiety and depression. Education is also a way to demonstrate to staff that talking about mental health is a good thing and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

Creating support systems: Having reliable support systems in place is critical when it comes to navigating mental health for nurses. Leaders should encourage and develop mentorship and peer relationships between nurses and create space for nurses to discuss their mental health concerns. These efforts allow nurses to realize they are not alone, validating their experiences and helping them get the support they need.

Promoting self-care: Self-care is paramount when it comes to dealing with anxiety and depression. But taking care of our well-being is easier said than done — especially in a profession that values endless resilience. Nurses must be encouraged to offer themselves the same grace, compassion, and attention typically reserved for others. Nursing leaders can promote self-care by modeling appropriate work-life balance and encouraging nurses to take breaks during the workday.

Sharing resources: Improving access to internal and external behavioral health resources, including contact information for mental health counselors and crisis hotlines, free mental health screenings, and more can inspire nurses to seek help early — before their conditions intensify. HR should collect and share appropriate resources as often as possible.

Understanding what matters most to nurses is key, as nurses are in a position to actively seek out organizations that meet their needs, such as prioritizing efforts to support nurses’ mental health. Additionally, nurses that feel understood and empowered will be more likely to stay with an organization throughout their career.

To learn more about what matters to nurses in their careers, you can review the findings within the 2022 Nurse Salary Research Report.

Download the report here.