Uncovering Nurses’ Experiences of Pandemic Fatigue in Alberta

Fourth-year nursing students unveil local nurses’ experiences and perceptions of pandemic fatigue while providing patient care during COVID-19 pandemic.

28 May 2021

Burnout is a common issue within the profession of nursing, which is being further exacerbated by the onset and continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Workloads are heavier, staffing shortages are rampant, and additional responsibilities while working overtime have pushed many nurses to the brink, especially those working in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

“Any one of these factors in a normal setting has the potential to impact a nurses’ ability to provide quality patient care, and as they start to compound over time this leads to burnout, which has been shown by research to result in suboptimal patient outcomes,” explains Jenelle Both, a fourth-year University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing student who conducted a Quality Improvement (QI) project based on Alberta Health Services methodology alongside two of her classmates. 

As part of their leadership practicum experience, Both, Omolola Akinrinde, and Sandra Boakye — under the mentorship of Faculty of Nursing Assistant Professor Manal Kleib — created and distributed a survey to select nursing units around Edmonton, Alberta to identify issues nurses face in relation to care delivery and self-care during a pandemic.  

“Our primary goal was to bring attention to this phenomenon so that our frontline nurses know that we care and that we recognize the many challenges they have been enduring since the start of the pandemic,” says Kleib, who hopes nurses can identify pandemic fatigue symptoms and seek self-care as needed. 

“Beyond that, we also wanted to advocate on behalf of nurses so that policymakers and managers can begin to examine the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on nurses’ work life and wellbeing. We hope that by increasing awareness about this issue, nurses and their employers will take a proactive approach to addressing this phenomenon now and into the future.”

Overcoming Challenges  of Conducting Remote Research 

The students’ preliminary findings from 24 nurse respondents revealed three key themes, which they hope will inform policymakers in regulatory and health service associations on how to create policies that better support nursing practice particularly during pandemics and inspire nurse researchers to study this phenomenon more in-depth across various practice settings in Alberta.

The first theme identified pandemic fatigue effects as described by nurses.

”I would describe my emotional state as being on a roller coaster. One moment I feel fine and the next I get teary-eyed or snappy with my coworkers or family. Sometimes I get this urge to just walk away from what I am doing at work (I don’t actually do that) but the desire does cross my mind. Things that would never usually bother me often make me irritable” shared one nurse respondent. 

The second theme highlighted supports available in the workplace. Supportive managers and coworkers were cited as being a fundamental resource during the pandemic and many respondents cited having staff redeployed to the ICUs as being a huge support in terms of reducing workloads and addressing staff shortages. 

Lastly, respondents provided recommendations to improve nurses’ work life during the pandemic, which included decreasing the demands on already overworked nurses, encouraging staff to take more personal days, offering shorter shifts, and having a higher nurse-to-patient ratio.

Because of the limitations of the project — minimal access to frontline nursing staff, the set timeline of the project, and the challenges that come with working remotely — many questions remain unanswered: is a particular demographic of nurses more greatly affected by pandemic fatigue? Has pandemic fatigue affected nurses working in all fields of care, or is it the critical care / ICU nurses who have felt the greatest impact? What are some of the ways we can improve the support resources available to nurses in the workplace during and post the pandemic? 

At the very least, Both says this project highlights the resiliency and strength of nurses providing patient care while meeting the challenges as a result of the pandemic head-on. 

“I think we could do a better job of supporting our nurses, but I also think that we need to celebrate how they have responded during a global crisis and to honour their stories,” she said. 

Shaping Nursing Researchers of Tomorrow

Both had limited research experience prior to this project. As a result, the learning curve was steep and arduous; however, the constant support she received every step of the way from her mentor, Dr. Kleib, facilitated her learning experience. 

Conducting research as an undergraduate student can be incredibly daunting, but under the right conditions — a supportive and encouraging mentor mixed with a motivated and passionate research team — students' potential to excel, whether in their career or through future graduate studies, increases tenfold. 

“Getting involved in research early on gives you an opportunity to explore and acquire more in-depth knowledge about your subject of interest. And more importantly, your research efforts could be a strong driver of positive change and great discoveries,” explains Akinrinde. 

Boakye encourages any undergraduate nursing student interested in pursuing a research project to go for it. “Don’t underestimate your research potential or capabilities. Take bold steps to make a difference.” 

Kleib, who frequently mentors graduate and honors students, felt inspired by her students’ growth over the course of the study. She was thrilled to see them apply concepts of leadership, policy, advocacy, and change management in real-life — concepts the students learnt in their third year of study in theoretical leadership courses. 

This project provided a rare opportunity to learn about clinical improvement methodologies that are often used in the clinical environment but aren’t as visible to undergraduate students. These new skill sets, such as disseminating findings in different formats for different audiences and learning how to write a scholarly manuscript to be published in the International Journal of Nursing Student Scholarship (IJNSS), sets them up for success as they join the workforce. 

“I also was quite impressed with the students’ eagerness to learn new things and the leadership qualities they demonstrated throughout this experiential work. Our students are true leaders attesting to well-rounded leadership educational experiences embedded throughout their curriculum. It makes me so proud to be part of their experience and to see them shine as they did.”