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Public Health Nurse and Worker Shortage

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected workers who were closely involved with managing its fallout—such as those in nursing care or public health—compared to workers in other unrelated industries. Both nurses and public health workers laid the initial, critical foundation for the nation’s crisis response, bravely rising to the call of duty with imperfect information. However, two years into the pandemic, with numerous challenges persisting, these frontline workers are grappling with burnout and resultant professional shortages. Unfortunately, attrition within the nursing and public health realms can have a severely negative impact on patients and society as a whole.

Here’s what you need to know about the results of a recent national survey of the public health workforce, the state of the current nursing shortage, and how employers can protect against burnout and retain critical frontline workers.

Pandemic-related strain on public health workers

It's not surprising that the people who were the most exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic may be experiencing its repercussions the most acutely. A recent survey of the public health workforce, which assessed almost 45,000 workers in state and local government public health departments between September 2021 and January 2022, has quantified the impact of the pandemic on quality of life and professional outlook.

The key takeaways of the survey are sobering, with more than one-half of survey respondents reporting at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and one-quarter meeting the official criteria for probable PTSD. Mental health has been further strained among public health workers because of negative external forces, with 41 percent of public health executives noting that they have felt bullied, threatened, or harassed because of their line of work, and 59 percent reporting that they have felt undermined by individuals outside their department. Almost one-third of public health workers note that they are contemplating leaving their job within the next year.

Despite these challenges, which largely contribute to burnout in public health, the majority of those working in public health report being satisfied with their job and organization, and the grand majority believe their work is important and motivates them to do their best every day.

Pandemic-related impacts on the nursing profession

A similar picture is unfolding within the nursing industry, with one-third of nurses surveyed reporting that they plan to leave their jobs in 2022. A growing nursing shortage predated the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 2018 report by the American College of Medical Quality (ACMQ) noting that 37 of 50 states stood to face a significant nursing shortage by 2030. The struggles and sacrifices made by nurses during the pandemic have further intensified the shortage. Several factors contribute to the current nursing shortage, including an aging population, which creates a higher patient burden with more significant disease complexity. The age of the nursing workforce is also increasing, with more nurses planning to retire than nurses graduating into the profession. Burnout and turnover within the profession, which are nudged further by concerns about violence and safety within the workplace, are amplifying these demographic trends.

However, many nurses remain hopeful and dedicated to their profession, citing their undeniable passion for patient care and the fact that the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for improvement—shedding light on challenges that have always been faced by those in nursing.

How can employers retain public health workers and nurses?

While survey results may paint a bleak picture of current morale in public health and nursing, the individuals who work within these industries tend to enter their lines of work chasing more than just a paycheck—they are driven by a calling. Employers who are sensitive to the undeterred nature of healthcare workers should isolate the factors contributing to burnout within their organizations and work to retain these valuable and loyal employees.

Strategies for retention include:

  • Providing programming to help workers identify and combat burnout.
  • Improving workplace wages, flexibility, and benefits.
  • Addressing factors directly related to burnout—i.e., providing buffers against harassment and improving staffing ratios.

Given the potential workplace exodus that has been illuminated by recent surveys of public health workers and nurses, you may wonder whether shortages in these professions are related to the overall “great resignation” ongoing in the US. While it may be impossible to fully pinpoint one phenomenon’s influence on the other, the factors influencing sentiments within public health and nursing appear to be concrete and, fortunately, fixable.

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.


[1] Rising Stress and Burnout in Public Health. https://debeaumont.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2022/03/Stress-and-Burnout-Brief_final.pdf

[2] Third of nurses plan to leave their jobs in 2022, survey finds. https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/providers/third-nurses-plan-leave-their-jobs-2022-survey-finds

[3] United States Registered Nurse Workforce Report Card and Shortage Forecast: A Revisit. https://edsource.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Zhang-Daniel-Pforsich-Lin-2017-United-States-Registered-Nurse-Workforce-Report-Card-and-Shortage-Forecast_-A-Revisit.pdf

[4] Here’s why hospital nurses, the pandemic’s heroes, are so ticked off. https://www.sfchronicle.com/health/article/Here-s-why-hospital-nurses-the-pandemic-s-17010161.php

[5] Nursing’s wake-up call: change is now non-negotiable. https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en/events/nursing-wake-up-call

[6] Fifteen minutes may decrease nursing burnout: A discussion paper. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7031112/

[7] What Will It Take to Recruit and Retain Public Health Workers? https://www.governing.com/work/what-will-it-take-to-recruit-and-retain-public-health-workers

The National Public Health Information Coalition

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