British Columbia

Nurses experiencing burnout, anxiety linked to low quality of patient care, study finds

A new study published in the journal Healthcare found that nurses who report mental health symptoms like anxiety and burnout also perceive that patients in their units receive a lower quality of care.

The findings are based on surveys completed by nurses just before, and then during, the pandemic

Three nurses, masked and wearing blue scrubs, walk in different directions through a hospital corridor.
A new study published in the journal, Healthcare, found that the pandemic has increased B.C. nurses' mental health symptoms like anxiety and burnout, and that such an increase is correlated to a decline in the quality of care patients receive. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A new study published this month in the journal Healthcare found that nurses who report mental health symptoms like anxiety and burnout also perceive that patients in their units receive a lower quality of care.

Farinaz Havaei, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's school of nursing and the study lead, said the number one factor contributing to nurses' rising mental health symptoms is working conditions.

The study, which relied on two separate surveys of working nurses in B.C., supported by the B.C. Nurses Union, also compared results from immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic began and results from once it was well underway.

The first survey, carried out in December 2019, included about 5,500 respondents. The second, in June and July, 2020, included about 3,500, according to Havaei.

She said the findings include important factors in nurses' mental health and burnout, like heavy workloads, staffing inadequacies, access to personal protective equipment, and support from the organizations where health workers are employed. 

When anxiety and burnout go up, patient care goes down

An increase in mental health symptoms was also linked to a reduced quality of patient care.

"We actually found that there was an association — or a correlation — between the severity of nurses' mental health symptoms, and their ratings of quality and safety of care," said Havaei, who acknowledged that a limitation of the study was that patient care was determined by the nurses' self-reported perceptions, rather than a survey of patients themselves.

Nurses who took part in the two 25-minute online surveys were asked questions like, 'How likely are you to recommend your unit to family and friends if they needed care?'

Havaei said recommendations resulting from the study include the need for administrators to regularly assess nurses' mental health through anonymous surveys, and to make the findings of those surveys public. 

"By making that information publicly available, the public could essentially— by looking at that information — find out which hospitals or health-care organizations are high-performing or effective organizations," she said.

Havaei also said the study's findings show an urgent need to better detect, prevent and treat mental health symptoms among health-care workers, particularly nurses.

A similar survey hasn't been carried out since 2020, but Havaei fears the results would only show an increase in mental health issues among nurses and the associated decline in patient care, as the pandemic wears on.

"I don't think things are improving, unfortunately," she said.

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