American Association of Nurse Practitioners president offers actionable suggestions.
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, protecting the well-being and mental health of nurses and other healthcare workers is more important than ever, says April Kapu, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). Kapu, based in Nashville, remembers when COVID first began to affect the community in March 2020.
From setting up testing centers to developing COVID ICUs and ensuring they were staffed 24/7, there were a number of steps taken early on to attempt to wrestle control of the virus.
"I think at the beginning it was all-hands-on-deck, thinking that things will maybe wind down in mid-2021 if people got vaccinated," she said.
Kapu admitted that the surge of the Delta variant in the late summer of 2021 was a "huge hit." By that time, the staffing shortage had been aggravated further by the pandemic, including healthcare workers getting sick with COVID themselves.
According to Kapu, Nashville has reached its peak with Omicron variant cases, with children's and adult hospitals treating a high number of cases. She notes that while those being treated are "largely unvaccinated," they have begun to see more breakthrough cases with less severe symptoms.
"Having a staffing shortage, working day in and day out … that is physically exhausting," Kapu said, explaining how the stress and strain leads to burnout.
The long hours and constantly being on the move are physically exhausting for healthcare workers, she explained. Another factor of burnout is the emotional and mental toll the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers.
A number of studies have been conducted on the burnout healthcare workers are experiencing. Leading a group in her own study last year, Kapu found that 26% of nurse practitioners were exhibiting signs and symptoms of burnout. When asking participants what enabled their resilience to continue to push through their burnout, the "overwhelming recurrent" answer was wanting to make a change.
"Nationally, we just need to increase the supply of nurses and to support the education and training of nurses. Allow them to practice to the full extent of their education and training [and] increase autonomy," Kapu said, noting that the lack of the latter is directly related to burnout.
Having mental health services readily available to healthcare workers, in addition to emphasizing and implementing a healthy work environment, are also key to supporting workers. Workers also must not be afraid to seek out those resources if they feel like they need them, or to take days off.
"We cannot continue to run on the empty tank of gas. We need to take the time off now so that we can bring our very best self to our patients," Kapu said. "And when we do take that time off, we need to unplug and really spend that time getting out with nature, spending time with others, thinking about things other than work. That’s how we'll be able to come back and do what we really love."
Editor's note: This story was updated on February 9, 2022.
“We cannot continue to run on the empty tank of gas. We need to take the time off now so that we can bring our very best self to our patients.”
April Kapu, president, American Association of Nurse Practitioners
Nurse practitioners and other healthcare workers have been under tremendous stress attempting to treat patients throughout the pandemic.
April Kapu, president of AANP, stresses making mental health resources accessible for healthcare workers, and she urges workers to proactively seek help.