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Nurse Shortage Taking a Toll on Staff Morale

No one doubts the nurse shortage exists – and it’s getting worse. A recent survey of 200 nurse executives found that 70% of Chief Nursing Officers (CNOs) said their organization was experiencing a moderate, significant or severe shortage. And those CNOs expect the shortage to worsen over at least the next five years. The survey also revealed three other key ways CNOs say the nurse shortage affects healthcare organizations and their ability to reduce nurse vacancy rates.

Internal challenges to recruiting may be insurmountable 

While human resources departments continue to dig for innovative ways to recruit nurses, the surveyed CNOs said the two most significant internal obstacles to recruiting may be insurmountable. The nurse executives ranked the location of their facility and the lack of access to high-quality talent as the two largest challenges they face in recruiting nurses. Obviously facilities cannot be picked up and moved to new locations, and healthcare organizations have little influence over the local availability of top-tier talent. Hospitals and healthcare systems will need to develop novel recruiting techniques to overcome these barriers and reduce their nurse vacancy rates, which most respondents pegged around 12 percent at the time of the survey.

Nurse shortage’s impact on patient care and satisfaction

Not surprisingly, CNOs reported that their organization’s nurse shortage exerted a negative effect on patient care and satisfaction. About 34% of nurse executives said the shortage “considerably” or “greatly” affected patient care. And around 41% said the nurse shortage had a similar effect on patient satisfaction. These findings are not unexpected, given that the link between understaffing and poor quality care is well-documented. Poorer quality care may, in turn, lead to increased readmissions and low patient satisfaction scores that apply downward pressure to reimbursements.

Poor morale: another consequence of the nurse shortage 

Patients aren’t the only ones suffering due to the shortage, either. Nurses themselves seem to feel increasingly dissatisfied with their careers due to insufficient staffing at their organization. Only 1 percent of surveyed CNOs said the nurse shortage at their facility had no effect on nurse morale. On the flip side, a whopping 61 percent said the shortage exerted a “significant” or “great” negative impact on morale. Staff dissatisfaction with the work environment can promote a cycle of burnout and turnover. Moreover, if an organization develops a reputation for having a poor nursing environment, recruitment can become that much harder.

Effects of nurse shortage expected to intensify

Despite a 2014 report [PDF] from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that projected a surplus of nurses over the coming decade, CNOs expect the shortage to worsen over the next five years. And nearly half of those surveyed think things are going to get worse faster: 43% said they expect the shortage to intensify at their organization within the next two years. This may be due to the fact that RNs are not necessarily interchangeable. A growing influx of graduate nurses alone, as cited by the HHS report, cannot mitigate the overall nursing shortage because new nurse entrants cannot reduce the vacancy rate of specialty and experienced nurses.


As these responses show, the nursing shortage is a complex problem that goes far beyond simple supply and demand. Based on this survey’s data, CNOs, CEOs and other healthcare executives can expect to grapple with nurse recruitment, retention and satisfaction issues for at least the next several years.

Read More:

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