As a career coach who fields daily calls from nurses across the United States, I hear many stories about the state of the nursing profession. I also hear stories about nurses’ private lives, personal struggles, and the vagaries and challenges of a career in 21st-century American healthcare.
Sadly, a great deal of what I hear raises a question that never seems to be far from my mind: Are nurses doomed to be the Sisyphean figures we often think they are, undervalued as they push that proverbial boulder up a thankless mountain day after day?
So much cannon fodder
There are a number of common threads that weave their way through many nurses’ accounts of their work lives, and one that frequently rears its ugly head is the frequently shared perception that many nurses feel undervalued and unappreciated by their employers.
For a profession lauded in the Gallup poll year after year as the most trustworthy and honest professionals in the United States, hearing that so many nurses feel like so much cannon fodder on the front lines of the healthcare wars is disheartening, if not wholly appalling.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses have received considerable attention for their roles in caring so skillfully and selflessly for those infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Newspaper and magazine articles, YouTube videos, social media posts, and television cameras have highlighted the unflinching work of nurses, akin to that of firefighters running into a burning building as everyone else flees to safety. “Heroes work here” has been a common refrain since early 2020, and although that moniker feels uncomfortable to many nurses who simply prefer to be seen as normal human beings, the sentiment is what it is.
Despite the praise and the TV spots calling attention to nurses’ innumerable contributions to public well-being and safety, something has not changed as a result of the pandemic, and that is the unfortunate reality that a vast number of employers have already defaulted to their pre-pandemic ways. If there is indeed truth (and in my opinion there certainly is) to what I see and hear on social media and through my frequent contact with boots-on-the-ground nursing professionals from around the country, nurses’ seeming expendability in the eyes of myriad employers is an obvious and direct reflection of the ways in which they’re taken for granted despite being the very mitochondria of the entire healthcare system. Cannon fodder indeed.
The Nurse’s Lament
“I don’t feel appreciated or valued.”
“I feel like a cog in a wheel.”
“I’m just another faceless nurse who could be fired tomorrow for no reason.”
“No one cares about my workload or patient ratios; they just care about the bottom line.”
“Am I a person to them? Not at all; I’m a minion who could be discarded at any time. If they could replace me with a robot, they wouldn’t hesitate for a second.”
These aren’t just the ravings of disgruntled nurses; these are statements by real-life nursing professionals who care deeply about their work, their patients, the nature of nursing care, and the profession itself. These nurses have dedicated themselves to healing others, bringing other suffering humans succor and the peace of mind that a highly trained professional has their back.
The nurse’s lament of feeling undervalued can undermine nursing care. When nurses feel expendable, unappreciated, disposable, and stripped of their humanity down to a simple faceless worker, something is intrinsically damaged. When a nurse perceives that others can no longer see the deeper meaning in what they do, does that deeper meaning remain? Is the sacramental element of nursing care somehow lost?
In the wake of the individual and collective trauma of the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare employers who choose to cynically or ignorantly pay lip service to nurses’ individual and collective contributions are sowing the seeds of massive discontent, employee attrition, and a potential crisis of care.
Tote bags, mugs, and pizza during Nurses Week are no longer sufficient. Nurses need meaningful recognition in the form of appropriate pay, stellar benefits, safe nurse-patient ratios, environments free of bullying and incivility, and employers who listen—truly listen—to their experiences and opinions.
From unit-based councils and shared governance to leadership ladders, meaningful mentorship programs, and truly safe workplaces, there is much work to be done to secure the future of the nursing profession and the healthcare system writ large.
When we ignore the needs and opinions of the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, we’re shooting ourselves in the collective foot. And when we treat nurses like today’s disposable human commodity, we do so at our own peril, and that of the patients we serve.
Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.
With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.
Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.