Ascellus Blog

The COVID-19 Nurse Exodus: Criteria For Retaining a Strong Workforce

March 31, 2022

The start of the COVID-19 crisis two years ago saw an already understaffed nursing industry face an unprecedented and unrelenting virus. As the pandemic worsened, many nurses faced with double and triple shifts felt their stress levels rise and their passions wane, effectuating a mass exodus of nurses burned out from unrealistically long hours and paralyzed by unquantifiable fear, anxiety and depression.


Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has transitioned from overwhelming and uncontrollable to a more manageable, if still unyielding illness. While the world embraces cautious optimism, a future COVID variant and subsequent surge in cases are not out of the question, even while the aftermath of the last waves still taxes an already overworked and stressed-out nursing industry whose working conditions remain largely unchanged. That is why despite the recent reduction in restriction protocols, nurses continue to leave the profession.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021 ended with job availability topping nearly 11 million. Largely driven by an economic trend fueled by the pandemic, the Great Resignation has mostly affected employees aged 30 to 45 years old, as over 20% have quit their jobs between 2020 and 2021. While resignations were highest for jobs directly affected by the pandemic, healthcare workers abandoned their positions at a 3.6% increase from 2019 to 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that more than 500,000 nurses will retire by the end of 2022, equaling a shortfall of 1.1 million nurses nationally.


As we move into a post-pandemic world, the Great Resignation is not expected to temper, but rather continue, with workers looking for different or better opportunities. Many workers felt the pandemic served as the tipping point, stretching them far enough over the horizon to reveal their discontent: 59% faced insufficient staffing, 56% felt their job was too demanding, 54% felt an enormous emotional toll, 51% felt unsupported, 50% felt their job was too physically taxing.


While many industries face an influx of job resignations, healthcare workers are especially vulnerable, as the last two years concentrated on COVID patients, which placed workers at personal risk and caused emotional turmoil from working with angry, distrustful patients unwilling to listen to recommendations regarding vaccinations and treatments. A Rhode Island ER doctor explains that she stopped asking patients about their vaccination status because of the anger and frustration she felt toward these people who were putting her and her colleagues at risk.


With a greater number of nurses weighing the decision to leave the workforce or change industries, the looming labor shortage threatens the quality and cost of healthcare in America. Employers face stiff competition in backfilling positions and strengthening their labor pipelines. And the continued shortage takes a spiraling toll on the diminished numbers of healthcare workers who remain in the healthcare setting, placing more demands on their thinly stretched physical and mental capacities. And the spiral can be slowed (or reversed) with good COVID-19 management, technologies and a commitment to a culture of wellness.


Supporting healthcare industry workers to heal mentally and emotionally begins by introducing workplace protocols that nurture their mental wellbeing. When possible and circumstances allow, provide workers with:


  • An alternating schedule of high-stress and low-stress responsibilities
  • A mentor to support less-experienced workers and oversee their wellbeing
  • Flexible scheduling so workers feel they have control over their work/life balance


Permanent solutions that provide a safe environment of open communication are also necessary to ensure the mental health of your workforce.


  • Organize regularly scheduled staff meetings to address workers’ wellbeing and mental health status, and identify any developing issues that may require immediate attention
  • Regularly update workers on management’s investment in and initiatives for employees’ mental health
  • Provide a system whereby workers can communicate, ask questions and support one another on a regular basis
  • Connect workers who have concerns or mental health issues with your company’s employee assistance program
  • Connect struggling workers with work-focused cognitive behavioral therapy programs (W-CBT)


Instituting criteria such as these will nurture a positive working environment. By offering W-CBT, employers proactively give workers a means of regaining their emotional health as well as breaking through mental barriers to benefit physical healing. Receiving ongoing psychological support needs to remain at the forefront of employee benefits, as incorporating mental health protocols will help retain a powerful workforce.

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Ascellus bridges the gap between mental and physical health to accelerate recovery for our nation's workforce. By connecting the workers' compensation industry with our expert behavioral care and evidence-based treatments, we deliver high-quality outcomes, helping injured workers reemerge with increased strength, purpose and resilience in the workplace.