Nurses need more than a wellness program

They are not burnt out, they are exploited

IMAGINE YOU ARE a nurse at a Massachusetts hospital. Your 12-hour shift just turned into a 14-hour shift against your will. You’ve barely had time to hydrate, or even use the bathroom. Now you are forced to work more hours, even though Massachusetts has a law against mandatory overtime for nurses. If there is not a defined emergency, requiring a nurse to stay past their shift is illegal. But there is no emergency, and your hospital mandates you anyway. The hospital does not have enough nurses working because executives refused to hire and staff to the actual needs of patients, allowing the hospital (or more likely its giant corporate owner) to squeeze a few more percentage points from its profit margin. You are a nurse like thousands of others from Berkshire County to Cape Cod. You are not burnt out. You are exploited.

A commentary recently published in CommonWealth entitled “The health of our health care workers needs attention”  promotes the use of a “customized wellness program” to help healthcare workers overcome their stressful work environments. The program is used by public safety departments, the military, and federal agencies, and likely benefits people who can take advantage of its resources. However, any description of exhausted nurses, the challenging healthcare system, or the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic that does not include root causes and structural solutions threatens to perpetuate the very problems being described.

The pandemic has been a convenient scapegoat for the woes of nurses and other healthcare workers. It’s simple to say that a deadly virus that harmed the entire globe swept up our caregivers in its wake. It’s much harder to hear, especially for those entrenched in the leadership structure of our healthcare system, that we have been hurting for a long time.

Public health and the sustainability of jobs such as hospital nurses and other frontline caregivers has for many years taken a back seat to profits and ever-growing executive compensation. There is also a culture in healthcare leadership that professes to speak on behalf of workers without actually providing what we need. We need comprehensive workplace violence prevention laws. We need safe patient handling practices at all healthcare facilities. We need better enforcement of our existing laws such as mandatory overtime and the preservation of essential services. We need to set a limit on the number of patients a nurse can care for at one time. These types of policies have been proven by decades of research to work. They would go a long way to keeping nurses healthy and able to provide quality patient care.

How can an individual healthcare worker use meditation or breathing techniques to improve their wellness at work if they must work long hours without breaks? If a nurse practices mindfulness and gains an hour of productivity, who benefits under our current system? Not the nurse, who will simply be given more work or additional patients. Not the patient, who will continue to be cared for under the existing resource limitations as the hospital uses the productivity to seek more ways to maximize revenue.

The answer to these problems is not increasing the capacity of individuals who are already buckling under the strain of their work. The solution is coming together as a society to enact laws and implement policies that protect caregivers from a system designed to exploit them.

Katie Murphy is a registered nurse and president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.