Editor's Note: This piece was originally published in May 2022 and has been updated to reflect data in 2023.
Nurses play an essential role in society. This has been true for centuries, but recently COVID-19 shone a brighter spotlight on their importance as patients flooded hospitals needing care. While nursing has always been a demanding job, the global pandemic put unprecedented pressure on these workers. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) reports that nearly 100,000 registered nurses in the U.S. left the field between 2020 and 2022, creating a shortage of nursing talent that presents a continuing challenge to healthcare institutions.
A recent survey of healthcare employers by Indeed found that up to 60% of them are struggling to find qualified nursing candidates. Nationally, hospitals have an average registered nurse (RN) vacancy rate of almost 16%, and observers predict a potential shortage of up to 450,000 nurses by 2025. Meanwhile, 99% of nurses on the job are either open to new roles or actively looking for other opportunities, according to a survey of nurses that Indeed carried out during National Nurses Month to highlight National Nurses Week, which takes place in the U.S. from May 6 to 12.
We surveyed 1,400 nurses with the job titles of registered nurse (RN), licensed vocational nurse (LVN), or certified nursing assistant (CNA) to gain insight into their priorities and how these have shifted during the pandemic. A closer look at the findings can help healthcare institutions figure out how to better attract and retain nurses. Our data shows that focusing on nurses’ need for workplace wellness can be the competitive advantage employers are looking for.
Nurses want workplace wellbeing
Our survey found numerous ways that employers can improve nurses’ wellness on the job, including providing better pay, offering flexible work schedules, creating a supportive workplace culture, and recognizing their hard work.
Nurses prioritize these things because they have for years been faced with a slew of physical, mental, emotional, and moral challenges at work. Their jobs are not only physically demanding and emotionally taxing, they also frequently expose nurses to infection, verbal assault, and physical danger. Additionally, even prior to the pandemic nurses were often stretched thin by chronic understaffing, evolving technology demands, and paperwork and reporting requirements.
The Covid pandemic intensified this environment due to overfull hospitals, further staff shortages, threat of infection, and insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). More than 9,000 healthcare workers had contracted COVID-19 by April 2020. By December of that year, one-third of U.S. hospitals were short on ICU beds, and an ongoing lack of PPE prompted job walk-offs and strikes. Numerous studies found that nurses experienced anxiety, fear, depression, powerlessness, and isolation while they cared for Covid patients, and the American Nurses Foundation asserts that more than 34% of nurses still are not emotionally healthy.
In this intense environment, nurses badly need better support for wellbeing if they are to care for themselves as well as their families, communities, and patients. Nurses whose resources are sapped by their demanding jobs find it a challenge to meet personal obligations, maintain social relationships, and engage in self-care. These conditions can have an impact on work quality and potentially put patients at risk. The 2021 HealthyNurse Survey found that 31% of nurses feel they handle a larger workload than they are comfortable with, and that 70% prioritize patients' safety and well-being over their own.
Our study shows that nurses’ priorities are to be paid well, achieve work-life balance, and feel supported and appreciated. A workplace that meets these needs will enhance their overall quality of life and help them serve their patients better over the long term.
Better pay makes for happier nurses
Good pay helps workers achieve better wellbeing by allowing them to manage their personal lives more easily and by signaling their value to their organization. Our survey found that pay and benefits are the highest priorities for nurses, with 46% reporting that they want better compensation. This finding is backed up by a survey from healthcare staffing agency ShiftMed, which reports that 61% of nurses might stay at jobs they were looking to leave if their compensation were boosted.
While RNs’ median pay is $77,600 per year, and some earn six figures, the extremely high demands of their jobs and the quickly rising cost of living can render these amounts insufficient. Data from Indeed job postings shows that nursing wages declined by 3.5 percentage points during the second half of 2022, a time when inflation was skyrocketing. ShiftMed reports that 43% of its survey respondents say their pay can’t keep up with the rising cost of living.
Workplace flexibility is key to wellbeing
A prominent finding in our survey was that nurses, like workers across other industries, strongly desire more flexibility in their work arrangements. We found that 43% of our respondents want more flexibility in their schedule or shifts, up from 29% in 2021. Even more (62%) would prefer a job that is more flexible over one that is less flexible but comes with 10% higher pay. And 96% believe that flexibility is only going to become more of a priority for nurses now in the post-pandemic workplace.
Having greater flexibility gives nurses more control and autonomy in how they set up their daily lives, which can have a powerful effect on their emotional health.
Company culture is surprisingly important
Compensation and flexibility are now widely considered “table stakes” for recruitment and retention. More unexpected is the high value they place on the reputation and culture of their workplaces. Our study found that 83% of respondents find employer reputation “extremely” or “very” important when considering a job opportunity.
Additionally, a quarter of respondents also see value in a positive company culture, with 28% wanting to feel appreciated by colleagues. McKinsey’s 2022 Frontline Workforce Survey also found an emphasis on culture and environment among nurses, with over 60% of respondents saying a positive working environment is vital to their job satisfaction.
Employee wellbeing is a business imperative
Healthcare institutions may retain nurses and attract new ones by listening to what these professionals are saying about their needs and wants. Our survey data shows that nurses anticipate the following factors being highly important in deciding on future opportunities: Pay (98% said this would be important); feeling trusted and appreciated by coworkers and supervisors (96%); flexibility (96%); workplace culture (96%); and diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace (92%).
Nurses prioritize their wellbeing to such an extent that they will go to great lengths to find a job that helps them achieve it. Our survey found that 49% of nurses will commute 10 to 25 miles for a job that brings them more wellbeing, and 21% will go 50 miles. More than a quarter would consider relocating to find the right workplace. This presents an opportunity for employers who offer desirable wages, benefits, and company culture, as they can likely draw candidates from a wider geographic area.
While nurses are particularly concerned with wellbeing due to the stressful nature of their jobs, especially in recent years, their desire to find wellness at work reflects a larger trend across industries. In 2022, 46% of workers came to expect more happiness at work, and 86% realized that work happiness impacts their mood, self-confidence, and general quality of life, according to research by Indeed and Forester. The 2022 Indeed Work Happiness Report found that 87% of workers who report wellbeing at work are likely to remain with their current employer for at least a year.This widespread emphasis among employees on wellbeing is prominent in healthcare because the pandemic had an outsized impact on healthcare workers’ emotional health. Given that nearly all nurses are potentially open to changing roles, healthcare employers that differentiate their workplaces by boosting pay, embracing flexibility, and improving company culture can attract top talent and set themselves up for success in a post-pandemic world.