Nursing strikes have surged since the pandemic, with a total of 32,000 nurses striking in 2022 and many thousands more already in 2023. The year kicked off with a huge, headline-grabbing strike in New York City, and experts are predicting more in the months ahead. With that in mind, what are the key takeaways of this trend for healthcare employers, and what can be done to help prevent future strikes?
Current Nursing Strikes ‘a Long Time Coming”
Never exactly a rarity, nursing strikes have become commonplace in the United States and around the world in the past few years — and they’re often leading to quick union victories.
Take the recent strike in New York. In January, two major hospital systems ratified union contracts after a three-day strike that captured headlines nationwide. Ultimately, 98% of the approximately 7,000 striking nurses voted for an agreement that granted them a 19% raise over three years, as well as commitments to invest in more nurses and resources to enforce less onerous staffing levels.
Writing at MedCity News, seasoned nurse practitioner and nursing advocate Anne Dabrow Woods calls the current strikes “a long time coming.” The Covid-19 accelerated what was already in progress, she explains — a longstanding shortage of skilled nurses across the country. In other words, the pandemic gave a violent shake to a system that was already balancing on staffing insolvency.
“There’s no place that’s immune from what’s happening with the nursing shortage,” as Michelle Collins, dean at the college of nursing and health at Loyola University New Orleans, told the AP. “It’s everywhere.”
Indeed, if these nursing strikes show anything with clarity, it’s that many nurses are at the end of their tolerance for pay and working conditions that they no longer find tolerable — and they’re willing to put their careers on their line to let employers know how they feel.
5 Takeaways from the Ongoing Nursing Strikes
There are a number of reasons why nurses are striking. They may seem like familiar complaints to employers, but they’re very real to nurses. And because they’re so familiar, mechanisms are now largely available to deal with them, in some capacity, before they lead to conflict. Let’s take a closer look.
Pay may not be the only complaint voiced by striking nurses, but it’s probably the most common one. Always hard working, nurses have been in overdrive since the pandemic. This is especially true among those working in acute care settings. (And it’s no coincidence that these are some of the nurses who have been striking most frequently.)
> Takeaway: Obviously, many healthcare organizations are feeling intense financial pressure, and there’s usually no easy solution here. But as we saw in New York in January, carving out room in the budget for higher pay seems to be the endpoint for most of these strikes. Organizations that can do so may want to take proactive measures in that direction sooner rather than later.
#2: Understaffing & Patient Safety
As important as pay is, though, nurses themselves have been quick to point out that it’s not their top concern.
“We are not out here for wages,” as Lorena Vivas, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital and member of the executive committee of the New York State Nurses Association, said to a crowd of strikers during the New York strike. “We are out here because we want the patients’ safety.”
Not just leaders of unions but nurses themselves feel that patient safety is threatened by widespread understaffing. In a 2022 survey of nurses, more than 69% felt that staffing was getting “slightly worse or much worse.”
The inability of so many organizations to stabilize their staffing results from applying yesterday’s staffing models to today’s problems, writes Woods in the MedCity article. “It is common knowledge that U.S. hospitals do not staff for 100% occupancy … When a surge occurs, they are often caught short and scrambling to fill in, often with temporary resources or asking their nurses to work extra shifts.”
> Takeaway: Updating an organization’s staffing model to today’s needs is easier said than done, of course. It often requires an organizational overhaul. In the midterm, however, employers can partner with healthcare staffing company to bolster their current numbers and ease the most immediate effects of understaffing in a way that their employees might well appreciate.
Besides compromising patient safety, understaffing is also a big driver of burnout — another common complaint among nurses who go on strike. And a recent survey found that as many as 84 percent of nurses feel stressed out or say they’re dealing with burnout. As Carol Davis explains at HealthLeaders Media, these nurses also “feel unsupported or not supported enough by their employers.”
> Takeaway: There’s a growing body of best practices that employers can follow to curb burnout among nurses and other clinicians. For a few examples, check out our guide to addressing the causes of nurse burnout and our list of tips for preventing burnout and compassion fatigue.
#4: Lack of support
Lack of support is another consistent complaint among striking nurses. As Woods writes, many nursing professionals feel that their employers find them expendable. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a common enough concern to drive widespread dissatisfaction, especially among younger workers.
At a time when employers are finding it difficult to retain essential workers, it’s a striking contrast to hear nurses express that there’s “no retention plan in place, and I feel like the unit wouldn’t care if I left nursing altogether,” as one unhappy worker told Davis.
> Takeaway: Expanding mental health services could help to ease this particular concern. According to a 2022 National Nurses United’s survey, 23% of nurses said that they sought out mental health treatment as a result of the pandemic. Employers who offer more of that type of help as part of their larger company culture could help ease this concern before it reaches a boiling point.
#5: Workplace Safety
In the wake of Covid-19 and the controversial vaccine mandates, healthcare facilities have too often become centers of violence. The survey that Davis cites shows that more than half of nurses say that “verbal abuse has increased” since the pandemic, with another 43% showing concern that their facilities don’t have a reporting structure in place to handle this issue should it arise.
There are other aspects of workplace safety, too. The exhaustion that comes from overwork is also a safety concern for some unions. And, although the need for protective gear may have diminished along with pandemic measures, the awareness of the importance of this aspect of everyday safety is still going strong.
> Takeaway: As the Covid-19 public health emergency (PHE) comes to an end, many organizations have chosen to retain their pandemic safety policies into the future to help ensure the well being of their workers. An additional step could be to bolster external security in a further effort to keep workers safe, and feeling comfortable coming into work every day.
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