Nurse retention was an issue before the global pandemic. As the novel coronavirus has spread so has the urgency around keeping nursing talent.“Expert nurses are needed for their advocacy, mentoring and clinical skills,” notes Kathy Mertens, DNP, MPH, RN, immediate past president of the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing (AAACN). “We know the cost of turnover is high. Retaining top talent avoids costs of recruitment, onboarding and productivity losses. Top nursing talent also impacts positive patient outcomes so it is important to retain our expert nurses. We need committed nurses – those inspiring and engaging role models whom others look to for inspiration and guidance.”

Here are five nurse retention strategies to deploy now:

  • Emphasize nurse safety. “One of the biggest challenges in nurse retention is nurse safety,” Mertens asserts. “Physical and psychological safety is a critical component of an approach the Institute for Healthcare Improvement developed toward restoring joy at work and decreasing burnout and dissatisfaction – both of which lead to turnover.”

Retention tactics: Provide more frequent safety training and clearly communicate precautions to protect and support nurses for the rapid changes in COVID-19 protocols, for future pandemics and for the new normal. HealthcareSource partnered with Amplifire to offer a PPE refresher course at a discounted rate, as an example, which is designed to help reduce risks of spreading the disease unknowingly.

  • Address PTSD and burnout. “Even before the pandemic, nurse burnout was a significant problem, with more than 60% of nurses in acute care settings reporting it,” says Robin Hertel, EdS, MSN, RN, CMSRN, president of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN). “The emotional and physical exhaustion as well as the experience of seeing multiple people die on each shift [mean] PTSD is a valid concern. Even with treatment, some nurses will not be able to return to positions of acute care or the profession at all.”

Retention tactics: Provide immediate options for on-site self-care, like a quiet room for breaks. Institute debriefings, mental health checks and psychological support that can be continued post-pandemic.

  • Encourage continued training and certification. Training and learning budgets may suffer from continued financial contraction related to the pandemic. Professional nursing organizations can provide immediate educational opportunities. For example, the AAACN’s Telephone Triage and COVID-19 webinar, which drew 3,000 nurses eager to learn how to handle the huge spike in patient calls. The AMSN developed an online competency tool and brief refresher course on caring for medical-surgical patients for nurses floated to these units from other areas. Professional groups also offer longer-term support, such as competency standards and certification programs that boost skills, teach best practices and identify opportunities for professional growth.

Retention tactics: Promote association-based educational and certification opportunities and consider subsidies or scholarships for nurses to complete programs and attend conferences.

  • Focus on early career nurses. Nurses who have been in the profession less than five years are at particular risk of leaving, according to Hertel. “Young nurses whose first taste of nursing is dealing with the pandemic…need to feel engaged and respected as integral members of the healthcare team. They are more motivated by mission and purpose than many older cohorts and want to work for an organization that exemplifies their own personal values.”

Retention tactics: Create programs and strategies that articulate organizational mission and purpose, then reinforce how your organization supports early these nurses’ ideals.

  • Enhance pathways to leadership. “While providing direct patient care is one of the main reasons many nurses enter the profession, we also want to have opportunities to increase our skillsets, take on more responsibilities and advance,” Hertel explains. “Providing a pathway to leadership program relays the message that nursing is valued and that the organization is wanting to invest in helping the nurses achieve aspirational goals. It increases engagement of the nurses which, in turn, increases retention.”

Retention tactics: Identify ways to augment your leadership identification and development practices, including implementing a learning management system to keep track. Talk to current nurse leaders about how to evolve your program.

Investing in nurse retention does more than stabilize the workforce.

“These investments promote nurse engagement, improve team performance and patient safety, and decrease burnout,” Hertel concludes. “These are steps that will keep nurses engaged and a part of the healthcare team.”

For additional COVID-19 resources, please visit our Coronavirus Resource Center.

About Margot Carmichael Lester

Margot Carmichael Lester is a North Carolina-based freelance business journalist who has been covering healthcare and staffing for more than 20 years. She also writes about moviemaking for the International Cinematographers Guild, specializing in action cinema. Margot co-authored the award-winning teen writing book Be a Better Writer with her husband, Steve Peha. She earned her BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a rabid Tar Heel basketball fan.