The Great Resignation: Health Care Workers

We are short a million health care workers. Today with extreme stress on the system there are 16 million health care workers, about five hundred thousand fewer than when the pandemic began in January of 2020 and about one million fewer than would be expected based on decades of growth. A loss of this many workers is unprecedented.

Ed Yong in the Atlantic discusses Why Health-Care Workers are Quitting in Droves:

Health-care workers, under any circumstances, live in the thick of death, stress, and trauma. “You go in knowing those are the things you’ll see,” Cassandra Werry, an ICU nurse currently working in Idaho, told me. “Not everyone pulls through, but at the end of the day, the point is to get people better. You strive for those wins.” COVID-19 has upset that balance, confronting even experienced people with the worst conditions they have ever faced and turning difficult jobs into unbearable ones.

In the spring of 2020, “I’d walk past an ice truck of dead bodies, and pictures on the wall of cleaning staff and nurses who’d died, into a room with more dead bodies,” Lindsay Fox, a former emergency-medicine doctor from Newark, New Jersey, told me. At the same time, Artec Durham, an ICU nurse from Flagstaff, Arizona, was watching his hospital fill with patients from the Navajo Nation. “Nearly every one of them died, and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “We ran out of body bags.”

…Many health-care workers imagined that such traumas were behind them once the vaccines arrived. But plateauing vaccination rates, premature lifts on masking, and the ascendant Delta variant undid those hopes. This summer, many hospitals clogged up again. As patients waited to be admitted into ICUs, they filled emergency rooms, and then waiting rooms and hallways. That unrealized promise of “some sort of normalcy has made the feelings of exhaustion and frustration worse,” Bettencourt told me.

Health-care workers want to help their patients, and their inability to do so properly is hollowing them out. “Especially now, with Delta, not many people get better and go home,” Werry told me. People have asked her if she would have gone to nursing school had she known the circumstances she would encounter, and for her, “it’s a resounding no,” she said. (Werry quit her job in an Arizona hospital last December and plans on leaving medicine once she pays off her student debts.)

…Many have told me that they’re bone-weary, depressed, irritable, and (unusually for them) unable to hide any of that. Nurses excel at “feeling their feelings in a supply closet or bathroom, and then putting their game face back on and jumping into the ring,” Werry said. But she and others are now constantly on the verge of tears, or prone to snapping at colleagues and patients. Some call this burnout, but Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, dislikes the term because “it implies a lack of character,” he told me. He prefers moral distress—the anguish of being unable to take the course of action that you know is right.

Health-care workers aren’t quitting because they can’t handle their jobs. They’re quitting because they can’t handle being unable to do their jobs.

Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.

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