Nurses transporting a patient in a hospital hallway

The Challenges of Nursing in a Hospital Environment

Highlighting the critical need for support and improvement in nurses’ working conditions

Nurses transporting a patient in a hospital hallway

Nurses are often hailed as the backbone of the healthcare system, a statement that barely scratches the surface of their pivotal role in patient care. These unsung heroes work tirelessly, often in the shadows of their more celebrated counterparts, to ensure the health and well-being of their patients. The hospital environment, a complex and dynamic ecosystem, relies heavily on the expertise, compassion, and resilience of nurses. They serve not only as caregivers but also as critical communicators, educators, and advocates for patients and their families.

In this dynamic setting, nurses are tasked with a multitude of responsibilities that go beyond bedside care. They are the linchpins that hold the patient care process together, coordinating with physicians, managing medications, observing and recording patient progress, and providing the emotional support that patients and their families often desperately need. The role of nurses in the hospital environment is multifaceted, requiring a delicate balance between technical skill and emotional intelligence.

However, this essential role does not come without its challenges. Nurses face a unique set of hurdles in the hospital environment, including but not limited to long and unpredictable working hours, physical and emotional burnout, staffing shortages, and the pressure to deliver high-quality care in an often understaffed and overstressed system. These challenges highlight the need for ongoing support, better working conditions, and recognition of the critical role nurses play in healthcare. This article delves deeper into the challenges nurses face in the hospital environment, shedding light on the realities of their work and advocating for solutions that can improve their working conditions and, by extension, patient care.

For those considering a career in nursing or looking to advance in the field, understanding the complexities and rewards of the profession is crucial. The pursuit of specialized roles within nursing can lead to significant opportunities for impact and advancement. Gain insights into the highest-paying nursing jobs, which offer both financial reward and professional fulfillment.

How Many Nurses Work in Hospitals?

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the nursing profession is the nation’s largest healthcare profession, with nearly 5.2 million registered nurses (RNs) nationwide. Of all licensed RNs, 89% are employed in nursing. According to the BLS, hospitals were the primary employment setting for nurses in the United States at 59%. Individual state data on nursing employment can be found through resources such as site, which reports that California has the highest number of nurses, with close to 500,000 nurses of various types, while a state like Delaware has close to 20,000 nurses, reflecting the variation across states due to factors such as population size and healthcare demands.

Globally, according to the World Health Organization WHO, there were 27.9 million nurses globally in 2020, making up nearly 60 percent of the health professions and the largest occupational group in the health sector. However, there is an estimated shortage of up to 13 million nurses around the world. While specific data on the proportion of these nurses working in hospitals worldwide is more challenging to pinpoint due to variations in healthcare systems and reporting standards, hospitals are generally among the largest employers of nurses globally.

Trends in nursing employment

The size of the nursing workforce has been a subject of concern, with many regions experiencing nursing shortages. In the U.S., the BLS projects the employment of RNs to grow 6% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is driven by factors such as an aging population, increasing emphasis on preventive care, and the expansion of healthcare services. Globally, a report by the WHO in partnership with the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and Nursing Now, reveals that today, there are just under 28 million nurses worldwide, leaving a global shortfall of 5.9 million – with the greatest gaps found in countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region as well as some parts of Latin America.

The nursing workforce is also undergoing demographic changes, with trends showing an aging workforce in many countries, including the U.S. This is significant as a large portion of the workforce is nearing retirement age, which could exacerbate nursing shortages. These changes in the nursing workforce size and demographics have significant implications for the hospital environment. Nursing shortages can lead to increased workloads for existing staff, potentially impacting patient care and nurse satisfaction. Additionally, the changing demographics of the nursing workforce have led to initiatives aimed at enhancing cultural competence and diversity among hospital staff, which can improve patient outcomes by enabling more personalized and culturally sensitive care.

Nurse holding her head in her hands

The Challenges Faced by Nurses Working in Hospitals

Nurses working in hospitals face a myriad of challenges that can impact their ability to provide high-quality patient care, their job satisfaction, and their overall well-being. Below is an introduction to each of these challenges, highlighting their significance in the nursing profession. Here is a list of the challenges that we will explore in more detail in this article:

Staffing and Resource Shortages: Nurses often grapple with inadequate staffing levels and resource constraints, leading to increased workloads and pressure to do more with less, affecting both patient care and nurse well-being.

Communication and Collaboration: Effective communication and collaboration among healthcare professionals are crucial for patient safety and care quality, yet breakdowns in these areas can pose significant challenges for nurses.

Physical and Emotional Demands: The nursing profession is both physically demanding, with long hours spent on one’s feet, and emotionally taxing, due to dealing with patients’ suffering, emergencies, and sometimes death.

Administrative and Regulatory Burdens: Nurses face extensive administrative tasks and must navigate a complex web of healthcare regulations, which can detract from time spent with patients and add to the stress of the job.

Occupational Hazards and Workplace Safety: Nurses are exposed to numerous occupational hazards, including infectious diseases, needlestick injuries, and physical violence, raising concerns about workplace safety.

Workplace Culture and Burnout: A challenging workplace culture can lead to burnout among nurses, characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.

Staffing and Resource Shortages

Staffing and resource shortages are among the most pressing challenges faced by nurses working in hospitals today. These shortages can have profound effects on nurses, patients, and the healthcare system as a whole, impacting the quality of care, job satisfaction, and overall healthcare outcomes.

For Nurses
Staffing shortages significantly increase the workload on nurses, leading to longer hours and more patients to care for per shift. This can lead to errors and burnout, and  nurses may feel overwhelmed and unable to provide the level of care they aspire to, affecting their professional satisfaction and mental health. The American Nurses Association (ANA) cites the lack of staffing as a significant barrier to providing high-quality care, illustrating the widespread nature of this issue. Similarly, cited a study published in the American Journal of Nursing (AJN), where survey respondents were asked to rank the interventions they thought were most important for improving clinicians’ well-being. A top priority for both nurses and physicians was improving nurse staffing levels.

For Patients
When nurse-to-patient ratios are high, the quality of patient care can suffer. Research has shown that higher nurse staffing levels are associated with lower patient mortality rates, fewer medical errors, and improved patient outcomes. Conversely, staffing shortages can lead to increased hospital readmission rates, higher infection rates, and longer hospital stays.

For the Healthcare System
Staffing and resource shortages can lead to higher healthcare costs due to increased complications, longer hospital stays, and higher readmission rates. Evidence suggests that nurses who work in well-staffed hospitals have the time and the resources to more effectively execute the care processes that influence readmissions.

Nurses standing in a hospital hallway

Consequences of Limited Resources

The lack of essential supplies or equipment can hinder nurses’ ability to perform their duties efficiently and safely, potentially compromising patient care. For example, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how critical adequate resources are for patient and healthcare worker safety. In addition, working in an environment where resources are constantly scarce can be frustrating and demoralizing for nurses. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction, increased stress, and a sense of inadequacy, as nurses may feel they are not able to provide the best care to their patients. Moreover, insufficient staffing levels have been linked to an increase in hospital-acquired infections, patient falls, and medication errors. These adverse events not only affect patients’ health and recovery but can also lead to legal implications and increased costs for hospitals. The NIH found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals experienced severe shortages of PPE, leading to increased exposure risk and stress among healthcare workers. Reports indicated that nurses had to reuse masks and gowns, directly impacting their safety and anxiety levels.

Communication and Collaboration

Effective communication and collaboration among healthcare professionals are pivotal for ensuring high-quality patient care in the hospital environment. Effective communication and collaboration contribute to a culture of safety, reduce the likelihood of medical errors, and improve patient satisfaction. When healthcare professionals work together cohesively, they can leverage their diverse expertise to make more informed decisions, provide comprehensive care, and address patient needs efficiently. For example, multidisciplinary team meetings that include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other specialists can facilitate a holistic approach to patient care, ensuring all aspects of a patient’s health are considered.

Despite its importance, achieving effective communication and collaboration can be challenging, particularly for nurses, who are often the primary point of contact for patients.

Here are a few of the challenges nurses may encounter:

  • Hierarchical and interdisciplinary barriers: Traditional hierarchies within healthcare can hinder open communication between nurses and doctors. Nurses may feel hesitant to speak up or challenge decisions, even when they have concerns about patient safety or care plans.
  • Workload and time constraints: The high workload and time pressures faced by healthcare professionals can limit opportunities for detailed discussions about patient care, leading to missed information or misunderstandings.
  • Cultural and language differences: With increasingly diverse healthcare teams, cultural and language differences can pose additional communication challenges, potentially leading to misinterpretations or errors.
  • Lack of standardized communication protocols: Inconsistencies in communication protocols across departments and disciplines can lead to information gaps, especially during critical transitions of care, such as patient handoffs.

Impact on Patient Care

Ineffective communication and collaboration can significantly impact patient care, leading to errors, patient dissatisfaction, and potentially adverse outcomes. For instance, a study cited by the NIH found that communication failures were at the root of close to 30% of medical malpractice claims involving hospital patients, highlighting the critical role of effective communication in patient safety.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) developed TeamSTEPPS, a teamwork system designed to improve communication and teamwork skills among healthcare professionals. Studies have shown that implementing TeamSTEPPS leads to improved patient safety and reduced medical errors. The framework was recognized by the World Innovation Summit in 2015 as a successful example of rapid innovation diffusion in healthcare.

Similarly, research has demonstrated that the use of the SBAR (Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendation) technique can improve communication clarity, reduce errors, and enhance patient outcomes. They found that SBAR was an effective means of communication in terms of relaying pertinent information on the patient’s situation with minimal mistakes. Then, in 2013, SBAR was endorsed by the Joint Commission and deemed the communication standard for nurses. This standardized communication framework has been widely adopted to facilitate clear and concise communication among healthcare professionals.

Close up of a woman at a patient's bedside

Physical and Emotional Demands

The nursing profession is renowned for its high physical and emotional demands, which can significantly impact the health and well-being of nurses. These demands stem from long shifts, high patient loads, the nature of the tasks involved, and the emotional challenges of providing care in often stressful and sometimes traumatic circumstances.

Impact of physical demands of nursing

Nurses often work long hours, including night shifts, weekends, and holidays, with 12-hour shifts being common in many hospitals. This can lead to physical exhaustion and has been linked to an increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries, particularly back injuries, which are common due to the need to lift or move patients. High patient loads exacerbate these physical demands, as nurses must frequently walk long distances within the hospital, stand for extended periods, and perform physically intensive tasks.

A study published by the NIH found that more than half of the nurses surveyed reported experiencing a musculoskeletal injury, such as back pain, at least once in their careers, attributing these injuries to manual patient handling. Extended work hours and shift work have been associated with chronic fatigue, sleep disorders, and a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Impact of emotional demands of nursing

The emotional demands of nursing can be even more challenging than the physical aspects. Nurses form emotional connections with patients and their families, often in situations of vulnerability, illness, and death. Dealing with difficult patients and families, witnessing suffering and death, and making critical decisions in high-pressure environments contribute to emotional strain and stress.

The emotional toll of continuous caregiving, coupled with high-stress situations, can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout among nurses. A survey by the American Nurses Association highlighted that up to 62% of nurses feel the effects of stress and burnout in their jobs. Furthermore, nurses are at a higher risk for developing anxiety, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially those working in high-intensity units such as emergency rooms and intensive care units.

In conclusion, the physical and emotional demands of nursing can have profound effects on nurse health and well-being. Addressing these demands requires a multifaceted approach, including implementing ergonomic interventions, providing mental health support, ensuring adequate staffing levels, and fostering a supportive work environment. Recognizing and mitigating these challenges is crucial for sustaining the nursing workforce and ensuring the delivery of high-quality patient care.

Administrative and Regulatory Burdens

Nurses in the hospital environment face a significant amount of administrative tasks and regulatory burdens that extend beyond direct patient care. These responsibilities include comprehensive documentation, reporting patient outcomes, adhering to a myriad of healthcare regulations, and ensuring compliance with hospital policies and procedures. While these tasks are crucial for maintaining patient safety, improving care quality, and fulfilling legal requirements, they also add to the workload of nurses, impacting their job satisfaction and the overall quality of patient care.

  • Documentation: One of the primary administrative tasks for nurses is detailed documentation of patient care, including assessments, interventions, and outcomes. This documentation is essential for communication between healthcare providers, legal protection, and billing purposes.
  • Reporting: Nurses are also responsible for reporting on patient status, adverse events, and compliance with treatment protocols, which is critical for patient safety and quality improvement initiatives.
  • Compliance with Regulations: Nurses must navigate an ever-changing landscape of healthcare regulations, including infection control protocols, patient privacy laws (such as HIPAA in the United States), and safety standards. Compliance with these regulations requires ongoing education and adaptation of practices.

Asian nurse helping an elderly patient exercise

Impact on workload and patient care

The time and effort spent on administrative tasks and compliance with regulations can detract from the time available for direct patient care, which is a core component of nursing. This can lead to several negative outcomes. For example, the burden of paperwork and administrative responsibilities can significantly increase the workload on nurses, leaving less time for patient interaction and care activities. In addition, the added stress and time demands of administrative tasks contribute to burnout among nurses, leading to decreased job satisfaction and potentially impacting their decision to stay in the profession. Indirectly, the focus on administrative tasks can impact the quality of patient care if nurses spend less time at the bedside, potentially leading to decreased patient satisfaction and outcomes.

Studies cited in the NIH on how nurses spend their working time revealed that documentation accounted for the largest proportion of nursing time; in fact, this category by itself accounts for 27.5% of all reported time. This corresponded to the primary location for documentation activities, such as the nurse station, which featured prominently. Nurses spent the largest proportion of their time, 38.6%, at the nurse station, compared with less than one-third in the patient room.

Occupational Hazards and Workplace Safety

Nurses in the hospital environment are exposed to various occupational hazards that can significantly impact their health and safety. These hazards include exposure to infectious diseases, workplace violence, and ergonomic risks associated with manual patient handling and repetitive tasks. Addressing these risks is crucial for ensuring the well-being of nursing staff and maintaining a safe working environment.

Physical Hazards

  • Exposure to Infectious Diseases: Nurses are on the front lines of patient care, making them particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases. This includes exposure to bloodborne pathogens, respiratory viruses, and other infectious agents, especially during outbreaks and pandemics. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers, including nurses, were at significant risk of exposure. A report published in the Washington Post cited a study from the World Health Organization, which indicated that healthcare workers accounted for 14% of COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. and up to as much as 35% in some countries.
  • Workplace Violence: Nurses face a higher risk of workplace violence compared to many other professions. This violence can come from patients, their families, or even colleagues and includes physical assaults, verbal abuse, and harassment. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) survey on healthcare crime, about 78% of aggravated assaults and 88% of all assaults that occurred in hospitals were from patients and families toward healthcare workers.
  • Ergonomic Risks: The physical demands of nursing, such as lifting and moving patients, can lead to musculoskeletal injuries. Repetitive tasks, awkward postures, and long hours spent standing or walking also contribute to ergonomic hazards. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that healthcare workers face one of the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among all occupations. Nursing assistants and registered nurses are among the top occupations for MSDs related to overexertion and repetitive motions.

Impact on Nurse Health and Safety

The exposure to these hazards can have significant consequences for nurse health and safety:

  • Health Risks: Occupational exposures can lead to serious health issues, including infections, physical injuries, and chronic musculoskeletal conditions. For example, needlestick injuries can result in the transmission of bloodborne pathogens like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.
  • Psychological Impact: Workplace violence and the stress of working in high-risk environments can have a profound psychological impact on nurses, leading to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Safety Measures and Training: Ensuring nurse safety requires comprehensive safety measures, including proper personal protective equipment (PPE), training on infection control practices, violence prevention programs, and ergonomic interventions to reduce the risk of injury.

Workplace Culture and Burnout

Workplace culture significantly impacts nurse burnout and job satisfaction. A positive workplace culture that promotes respect, teamwork, and professional development can enhance job satisfaction and reduce burnout among nurses. Conversely, a negative culture characterized by high stress, poor communication, and lack of support can lead to increased burnout rates, job dissatisfaction, and even turnover.

A nurse and a doctor speaking in a hospital hallway

Impact of Workplace Culture

  • Burnout: Burnout among nurses is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of accomplishment. Factors contributing to burnout include high workloads, emotional stress from patient care, lack of support from management and colleagues, and inadequate resources and staffing levels.
  • Job Satisfaction: The culture of the workplace directly affects nurses’ job satisfaction. Elements such as recognition for hard work, opportunities for growth and learning, and a supportive and collaborative environment can significantly improve job satisfaction and retention.

High patient-to-nurse ratios increase stress and the likelihood of burnout. Solutions include hiring more staff, using technology to streamline tasks, and implementing policies that ensure reasonable workloads. A lack of support from management and colleagues can also exacerbate stress and burnout. Creating mentorship programs, providing access to mental health resources, and fostering a culture of teamwork and support can mitigate these effects. Moreover, insufficient resources and equipment can hinder nurses’ ability to provide care, contributing to frustration and burnout. Ensuring adequate supplies and modern, efficient equipment can help address this issue.

A study cited by NIH found that nurses working in environments with supportive leadership, positive peer relations, and recognition for their work were less likely to experience burnout and more likely to report high job satisfaction. Programs designed to improve workplace culture, such as the implementation of shared governance models where nurses have a say in decisions that affect their work, have been shown to improve job satisfaction and reduce burnout rates as well.

The Advantages of Working in a Hospital Environment as a Nurse

Working in a hospital environment offers nurses a unique set of advantages that can enhance their professional development, job satisfaction, and the quality of patient care they provide. These advantages include exposure to a diverse patient population, access to specialized equipment and resources, and numerous opportunities for professional development and career advancement. Let’s take a closer look at these advantages and their impact.

Exposure to Diverse Patient Populations: Working in a hospital allows nurses to care for a wide variety of patients with different conditions, from acute illnesses to chronic diseases and everything in between. This diversity in patient care not only enriches a nurse’s skill set but also provides a broader perspective on healthcare needs and patient care management. Exposure to a diverse patient population enhances nurses’ clinical skills, adaptability, and ability to provide culturally competent care.

Access to Specialized Equipment and Resources: Hospitals are typically equipped with the latest medical technologies and resources, providing nurses with the tools they need to deliver high-quality care. This access allows nurses to stay at the forefront of medical advancements and apply the latest evidence-based practices in patient care. Utilizing specialized equipment and resources not only improves patient care outcomes but also contributes to nurses’ professional growth and satisfaction.

Opportunities for Professional Development and Advancement: Hospitals often offer structured pathways for career advancement and professional development, including continuing education programs, certification opportunities, and leadership training. Nurses can specialize in areas such as critical care, pediatrics, oncology, or emergency nursing, among others. These opportunities for professional growth and specialization can lead to increased job satisfaction, higher earning potential, and leadership positions within the nursing field.

Three medical professionals standing in a hospital

Interested in joining the nursing profession?

Nurses working in the hospital environment navigate a complex landscape of challenges that can significantly impact their well-being, job satisfaction, and the quality of care they provide to patients. These challenges include staffing and resource shortages, difficulties in communication and collaboration, the physical and emotional demands of the job, administrative and regulatory burdens, occupational hazards and workplace safety, and issues related to workplace culture and burnout. Each of these challenges presents obstacles to delivering high-quality patient care and supports the need for systemic changes to better support nurses in their critical roles.

Improvements in staffing levels, resource allocation, communication channels, and workplace safety are essential. Additionally, fostering a positive workplace culture that values and supports nurses’ well-being and professional development can lead to significant improvements in job satisfaction and patient outcomes. It is crucial for healthcare systems, policymakers, and the community at large to recognize the invaluable contributions of nurses and to work collaboratively towards creating a more supportive hospital environment.

Brookline College offers a variety of programs for those interested in joining the nursing profession. For those interested in an entry-level program in healthcare, the Licensed Practical Nursing program is a great place to start. For a more comprehensive education, there is the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program designed to prepare students for the diverse demands of the nursing profession. There is also an accelerated BSN program for those we want to expedite their training. Now that you have a sense of what’s possible, you can dive into more details on how to become a registered nurse, a valuable resource for prospective nurses on the duties, responsibilities, schooling, job outlook, and salary.