Tension, Stress and Burnout: Nursing Center Workers Still Recovering from Morale-busting COVID Wave

March 30, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

A nursing facility's hallway leading to an exit with a door at the end.
(Archive photo by Pamela Thompson, Nebraska Public Media News)

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It’s one of those March Sundays in Nebraska, where you can finally feel the sun’s warmth again for the first time in months.

Tabatha spent the morning at her family’s rural church in central Nebraska. Quality time with her children hasn’t happened much since the pandemic began.

“I’m kind of like a crab when I get home, because I’m just like, please — just be quiet. Stop fighting,” Tabatha said.

She’s one of the few workers left at a nursing home she’s been at for more than a decade.

Nebraska Public Media chose to withhold Tabatha’s last name and workplace for her privacy.

“I just want to relax. The minute I walk through the door, there have been days [where my kids are] like, 'Mommy! Mommy! Can we go downstairs and play Nintendo? Can we do this?' I’m like — can you guys just stop? I just walked in the damn door. Give me a break,” Tabatha said.

In the first part of our healthcare staffing crisis series, Nebraska Public Media News looked at how short staffing levels in healthcare systems led hospitals to deny hundreds of people care.

The hospital administrators we spoke to said their overcrowded situations worsened when they couldn’t release other patients to nursing care centers. And those centers are short-staffed too.

“In many of our buildings, we haven’t had to do anything like closing hallways, but I know of several facilities across the state and country that had to limit admissions, take less complicated residents, because of the care needs," Andrew Wismer, director of operations at Vetter Health Services, said.

Vetter Health Services is a skilled nursing network with locations around Nebraska and other neighboring states.

“So [they're] passing on people that they may be normally would have been able to take care of because of staffing. They had to shut a hallway to get it to become more efficient,” Wismer said.

Like hospitals, nursing facilities suffered when staff members, and more people in the community, caught COVID in December and January.

Inside the nursing facilities, some residents who call those centers ‘home’ see a lot of different people filling roles to care for them.

“I do know in many places across the state of nation where it's lots of temporary agency type staffing, and I think that would be very difficult to make sure you know that they know these people personally and not just as a diagnosis," Wismer said.

Wismer said it was an “all hands on deck” operation during the winter omicron surge for all staff, including office workers. The demand pushed many nursing facilities and hospitals not to their breaking points, but far past them.

“We had to get creative with how we staff to make sure we could still give good care. So we had, leadership team members, directors of nursing, those types of leadership nurses working on the floor and filling in and maybe not doing some of their administrative tasks that are important, but they could be put aside for awhile,” Wismer said.

That’s what happened in Tabatha’s case. Normally assigned to bathe residents, she quickly found herself filling other roles – like managing medication for patients.

She dreaded hearing the phone ring after a long shift, knowing it would be a plea to come back into work.

“It just is a heavy, heavy tension when you walk into work because you know everybody is so stressed and on edge. And just so burnt out and overworked that it's just really, you know, you basically cut the air with a knife as thick as the tension is," Tabatha said.

From what Tabatha sees all day, she says bumping pay or using flashy hiring bonuses aren’t cutting it.

“They'll show up for a couple shifts and they're like, 'Nope, I'm out. I'm done,'" Tabatha said.

"They just never come back or they'll just be no call no shows. And so it's just it's really a revolving door. The more people we hire, the more people quit, and it's usually within the first two weeks of working there," Tabatha said.

Nursing facilities, hospitals and healthcare advocates hope an influx of federal and state funding can entice workers to the field, but some hospital workers say there could be other solutions than trying to use cash to extinguish the fire.

This is the second story to our 3-part series that looks at Nebraska’s healthcare staffing crisis, and possible solutions. Tomorrow, we sit down with healthcare leaders about the transformative solutions they need.

Read part one here