Nurses say their mental health is suffering. Why aren’t more seeking help?

Most nurses said they need more support at work, but a new survey found few are seeking counseling. Advocates say nurses are dealing with far more than "burnout."

Most nurses say their work is taking a toll on their mental health, but few nurses are seeking mental health services, a new poll found.

More than half of those surveyed (56%) said they’re sacrificing their mental health at work, according to a report released Wednesday by IntelyCare, a digital staffing platform for nurses. The firm said the poll sheds more light on why many nurses are leaving their jobs.

Two in five nurses (40%) said they plan to walk away due to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Many nurses have said they are exhausted and said they aren’t getting enough support from their employers.

The IntelyCare survey found 41% of nurses said they didn’t feel supported by senior management, and 37% do not feel supported in their mental health at work.

However, only 10% of nurses said they take advantage of mental health services from their employers, even though 72% said their workplaces offer those services.

Some nurses are worried about retribution if they seek help, said Rebecca Love, IntelyCare’s chief clinical officer and a nurse.

“When nurses admit they need help, there is a stigma they worry will be used against them that could jeopardize their ability to practice,” Love said.

About 1 in 3 nurses (32%) said their greatest stress comes from the death of patients, but a solid majority (58%) said they aren’t regularly offered grief counseling.

Healthcare leaders have talked about the toll of burnout on their staff, but Love said that underestimates what nurses are enduring after more than two years in the pandemic.

“This is not burnout,” she said. “This is actually PTSD.”

Nurses have dealt with stress throughout their career, so it’s not as if nurses aren’t used to pressure and heartbreak. “These are people who have been ICU and trauma nurses for decades,” Love said.

With the weight of the pandemic, some nurses have tragically taken their own lives, including a Stanford nurse who walked out of a shift and died by suicide last month. Nurses are at higher risk for suicidal ideation than other U.S. workers, according to a study published in the American Journal of Nursing last November.

Hospital leaders have said they’ve been dealing with labor shortages throughout the pandemic, with nurse staffing being perhaps the biggest problem. Some nurses have quit jobs at hospitals due to stress or family obligations, but some have also opted for more lucrative positions at staffing agencies.

Nurses who are working at hospitals are dealing with more patients and less help. The survey found 29% of nurses hadn’t taken a vacation in 2021, and 40% said they couldn’t take time off when they desired.

About 4 in 10 nurses (39%) said they are placing their job over everything else in life, including their families, friends and their own health. That’s adding to the mental health woes for nurses, Love said.

“Families allow us to recharge,” she said. “The more we deny nurses that, it’s worsening the trauma for them.”

Some nurses are leery of taking time off, because they know their fellow nurses are overworked. “They feel like they’re betraying their colleagues,” Love said.

Healthcare leaders can help by offering nurses better benefit packages that include coverage for professional mental health counseling, Love said. “They’re going to have to examine benefit packages so real mental health is supported,” she said.

Nurses would also have less stress with better compensation, she added. With nurses regularly making $50,000 or $60,000, some struggle with student loan debts in the six figures.

Love said some nurses aren’t just leaving hospitals for jobs at staffing agencies. Some are getting out of the industry entirely for jobs where they can make comparable salaries and don’t risk the loss of a license due to a bad patient outcome.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations dropping nationwide, healthcare leaders should soon find ways to give nurses vacation time so they can at least recharge with families and friends, Love said.

Healthcare workers have encountered a great deal of trauma treating wave after wave of COVID-19 patients, and more attention is being paid to mental health.

Health advocates are urging Congress to pass the Lorna Breen Act, which would provide grants to address the mental health needs of healthcare workers. The legislation is named to honor an emergency department doctor who died by suicide early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the bill but it hasn’t moved out of the Senate.

President Joe Biden's administration has distributed more than $100 million to address mental health in the healthcare industry.

Reputation Leaders surveyed 500 nurses across the country during the fourth quarter of 2021. Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), and Registered Nurses all participated in the survey.

If you're struggling or someone you know is struggling, help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Call 800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is available around the clock.