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How hospitals can reduce nurse burnout and turnover | Felicia Sadler


Health systems can retain nurses by focusing on professional development across all the career stages.

Felicia Sadler

Felicia Sadler

High rates of nurse burnout and turnover are significantly impacting many healthcare organizations outcomes and bottom lines.

One study found that the average cost of turnover for a bedside registered nurse is $46,100, equating to between $5.2 million and $9 million in losses for the average hospital. Nurse burnout rates have risen to nearly 50 percent during the pandemic, putting organizations at risk of attrition-related losses.

Healthcare facilities are trying everything to stem the resignations — offering incentives such as recruitment bonuses and hazard pay, enhanced workplace wellness and recognition programs and increased flexibility in scheduling.

But while each of these measures are important, solving issues around nurse burnout, emotional exhaustion, and turnover requires taking a step back and asking a bigger question. How can we ensure nurses feel valued as significant contributors to healthcare organizations and at the same time, ensure they are on a meaningful journey to their desired career path?

Organizations can create a healthier working environment for nurses — and a higher-performing nurse workforce — by prioritizing professional development for nurses across all the career stages, from recent graduates to experienced veterans.

Here are three reasons professional development is so important when it comes to addressing burnout and reducing turnover.

Patients’ care needs are becoming more complex.

Average life expectancy has increased from 70.9 to 78.7 years over the past few decades, and people aged 65 and older are significantly more likely to be hospitalized.

This means that hospitals and acute care facilities are seeing advanced aging populations with more chronic, comorbidities such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia-related illnesses. A nurse who has less experience in managing complex disease processes and caring for complex patient populations will naturally feel more stressed, unsupported, and overwhelmed.

Professional development creates opportunities for advancement and certification.

Certification demonstrates that nurses have proven their competence and distinguished themselves within a specialty. Certified nurses can demonstrate additional competencies in managing the complexities of patient populations within their given specialty.This can also support them if they have a desire to pursue leadership tracks.

Providing nurses opportunities to pursue advanced certifications in certain clinical practice areas enables them to explore care specializations they are passionate about. It also boosts confidence, patient outcomes and provided opportunities for them to serve as a clinical expert for their team.

These programs help identify future leaders.

A nurse that is placed in a role not suited to their talents may be more likely to consider leaving for another healthcare facility or another profession. A robust professional development program that includes skills assessments, beginning during the hiring process, can identify certain personality traits and skills that may indicate a nurse is an ideal leader or manager with the right training and enough experience.

Many healthcare facilities across the continuum of care recognize the need for ongoing professional development within their workforces, but there can be significant variation and fragmentation in approach which leads to lack of buy-in and engagement.

Too often, the onus is on individual nurses to take the initiative to drive their own careers and professional development. Organizations should consider formalizing their approaches using data-driven and evidence-based approaches to learning. This will make it more likely that nurses stay engaged in their professional development, and their organizations reap the benefits of their growth in clinical competence.

Here are three important steps to formalizing a professional development program.

Provide nurses access to dedicated resources.

This includes personnel, such as a professional development practitioner, who assesses the professional development and clinical competence needs of staff, along with the resources needed to support these efforts, such as mental health support.

A professional development leader is responsible for designing a program that aligns with the organization’s strategic priorities. This leader makes the business case to other leaders that their program can yield significant value and ROI to the organization. They also keep nurses and other frontline staff engaged in their continual learning journeys and help them understand how staff members can best leverage the resources available.

Customize professional development for individual nurses.

Every nurse has unique learning needs.

For example, a hospital may welcome two newly licensed registered nurses (NLRNs) to their staff who may have vastly different amounts of exposure to clinical situations. The NLRNs should ideally have opportunities to apply their critical thinking and reasoning in classroom discussions or simulation environments. They will then feel more prepared and clinically competent as they begin to care for more complex patients.

Measure the effectiveness of professional development programs.

As healthcare continues to transition to value-based care, evidence-based practices play an even greater role in an organization’s success. Organizations should measure and track key performance metrics to ensure that their professional development program is meeting objectives. Metrics to track include nurse job satisfaction, retention, engagement, newly acquired knowledge and skills, patient or resident satisfaction, and clinical outcomes.

As an example, hospitals and post-acute care facilities that have poor metrics around preventing readmissions and reducing falls may see their CMS quality rating decrease and their reimbursement rates impacted. Those facilities may decide to provide targeted learning to their nurses and other clinical staff around top conditions tied to readmissions, such as heart failure, pneumonia, COPD and myocardial infarctions.

Over the past several years, nurses have described their feelings of burnout as similar to being trapped in a waking nightmare, exacerbated with the pandemic. Burnout for healthcare providers has always been a top-of-mind concern as issues around burnout and turnover pre-dated the pandemic. As healthcare leaders, one of our top priorities for the new and experienced nurses should be that they feel heard, valued and supported.

Effective professional development programs that meet individual learning needs help elevate nurses and the profession overall. Nurses who have access to continuing education opportunities feel more motivated, energized, and effective at providing clinically competent care that delivers better outcomes for patients.

Felicia Sadler, MJ, BSN, RN, CPHQ, LSSBB, is a patient safety and quality executive at Relias, an education and workforce development partner to more than 11,000 healthcare organizations worldwide.

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