Types of Essential Nurse Support During a Crisis

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A nurse wearing a mask and gloves holds a sign with the words, “We can do this” and a drawing of a smiley face on it.

When a medical crisis strikes, nurses are on the front lines to keep patients healthy and safe. An all-hands-on-deck situation like a pandemic or natural disaster means staff nurses may need support to handle the accompanying turmoil. In a crisis, the emotional well-being of nurses and nurse leaders is paramount to patient safety.

Maintaining this well-being can be difficult for nurses during crises, particularly for those in the early stages of their careers. A spring 2022 survey produced by the American Nurses Foundation noted that almost half of participating nurses younger than 35 had sought mental health support since the initial onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. The survey also reported that 30% of nurses older than 25 said they were suffering from burnout, as were 69% of nurses younger than 25.

While the pandemic may be cited as a key factor in driving these feelings, stress was a serious issue even earlier. A 2019 survey from the National Academy of Medicine estimated 35% to 54% of nurses and physicians suffered from burnout. Without support, nursing stress can potentially increase to critical levels during any kind of public health emergency.

This threat of critical stress during unusual times demonstrates why effective nurse leaders are so important. Nurse leaders in executive positions guide staff nurses and other staff members to work through public health emergencies in a way that can mitigate stress.

Types of Stressors for Nurses on the Front Lines

Nursing can be a stressful profession even without a direct crisis. Several factors contribute to this environment. Long hours are a common source of stress, and it’s not uncommon for nursing professionals to work regular 12-hour shifts.

The job itself can also be physically demanding, as routine activities caring for sick or injured patients can not only be taxing on the body but also the immune system. Nurses may also deal with heavy workloads, particularly if they work at a facility that is understaffed due to an ongoing nursing shortage. Plus, nurses may experience on-the-job conflict with other nurses and health care professionals. They can also face a psychological toll when their patients die.

Crises can heighten these stressors, as the intense focus of care delivery during a public health crisis or large-scale emergency can increase pressure on nurses. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, heightened specific stressors in the nursing field. A 2020 survey published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reinforced this fact. The survey found that exposure to the virus, the large number of patient illnesses and deaths, workplace environments, supply chain issues, internal politics and the virus’s unknown nature drove high stress levels in nurses who were treating COVID-19 patients. It also found that some of these factors tended to underscore feelings of inadequacy and helplessness in several nurses surveyed.

These stressors, if left unchecked, can have a profound impact on the physical and mental well-being of frontline nurses. It also can have negative ramifications that go beyond individual nurses. High stress can contribute to low team morale, which can affect the energy and efficiency levels needed to provide optimal patient care. In turn, this can negatively impact patients’ health, particularly in moments of crisis.

How to Support Front-Line Staff

Nurse leaders such as advanced practice nurses are in a unique position to lend critical help to nurses on the front line. The Advisory Board, a research organization that provides best practices and recommendations for health care improvements, created a list of strategies nurse leaders can use to offer support. While they were designed for the COVID-19 pandemic, these strategies can be applied in any crisis situation. The organization suggests that facilities:

  • Expand emotional support services
  • Strengthen peer networks
  • Create safe spaces for nurses to decompress
  • Provide assistance for daily tasks (such as grocery shopping), so nurses can focus on patient care
  • Share resources so staff can help themselves

Nurse leaders must also ensure optimal patient care continues to be delivered during crises, particularly when patients themselves may be experiencing stress caused by a crisis. Because of this, it’s important for leaders to confirm that their staff adheres to the essential principles of delivering trauma-informed care, such as ensuring safety, transparency and cultural competency.

How Nurses Can Support Each Other

Frontline nurses can take an active role in weathering moments of crisis by being there for one another. This process can help build a better workplace culture, which can help make it easier to manage stress.

Mental Health America offers strategies on how nurses and other health care workers can support each other. These tactics can help during crises as well as in day-to-day work environments:

  • Check-in with one another
  • Take a team-based approach to general well-being
  • Use humor as a tool
  • Express feelings of gratitude
  • Recognize verbal cues

Nurse leaders can also integrate these tactics into their leadership strategies.

Advance Your Skills to Become a Nurse Leader

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the stresses that nurses face. Skilled nurse leaders can use their knowledge to create effective nurse support strategies to help mitigate stressful situations no matter what a crisis may look like. This can benefit nurses as well as patients.

Duquesne University’s online post-master’s nursing certificate program presents an opportunity for nurse leaders to deepen their knowledge and learn how to provide the kind of leadership that can reduce workplace stress. The program’s six specializations can help you hone your practice in fields such as adult-gerontology acute care, executive nurse leadership and health care management, family (individual across the lifespan), forensic nursing, nurse education and psychiatric-mental health.

Learn how Duquesne can help you advance your career and drive positive change for the future of healthcare.

Recommended Reading

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Trends in Nursing Education: What to Expect for the Future

Cultivating a High-Performance Nursing Team


Advisory Board, “Starter List: How You Can Support Frontline Staff During the COVID-19 Crisis”

American Nurses Foundation, New Survey Data: Younger Nurses More Likely to Experience Negative Impacts from the COVID-19 Pandemic

BMC Nursing, “Nurses’ Job Stress and its Impact on Quality of Life and Caring Behaviors: a Cross-Sectional Study”

Healthline, “Understanding the American Nursing Shortage”

Houston Chronicle, “Is Nursing a Stressful Career”

The Journal of Nursing Research, “Nursing Perspectives on the Impacts of COVID-19”

Mental Health America, How Healthcare Workers Can Support Each Other

National Academy of Medicine, Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout: A Systems Approach to Professional Well-Being

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “Nurse Reports of Stressful Situations During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Qualitative Analysis of Survey Responses”