The Covid-19 pandemic devastated many nurses’ mental health, and workplace racism made it worse, two recent studies find

Shannon Simonovich and Kashica Webber-Ritchey and other faculty and students at DePaul interviewed nurses.

Nurses from all backgrounds have felt immense stress during the Covid-19 pandemic, but for nurses of color, pandemic-related stress was compounded by stress from workplace racism.
That news comes from two studies looking at the emotional well-being of nurses in 2020. The first was done by researchers at DePaul University in Chicago. The researchers conducted interviews with a diverse group of 100 nurses from May to September 2020 to assess their emotions. Nurses reported moral distress related to knowing how to treat patients and protect themselves, but not having the staff, equipment or information they needed. As a result, they reported feeling fear, frustration, powerlessness and guilt. The research is published in the journal SAGE Open Nursing.

According to Shannon Simonovich, the study’s principal researcher, many news stories about health-care heroes featured white female nurses, but nurses from many different backgrounds with varying education levels cared for Covid-19 patients. Simonovich recruited a diverse group of DePaul researchers for the study, which in turn helped recruit a diverse group of nurses to be interviewed, according to coauthor Kashica Webber-Ritchey. “We captured the voices of diverse nurses caring for a diverse patient population … proportionately impacted by Covid-19,” Webber-Ritchey said. In the DePaul sample, 65% of the nurses identified as a member of a racial, ethnic, or gender minority group.

The study’s findings are supported by another study from Rutgers University, which found that nurses of color were suffering from a “dual pandemic” because of the emotional distress caused by Covid-19 and workplace racism.

In September 2020, during a lull in the pandemic, the researchers surveyed nearly 800 nurses working in acute-care hospitals in New Jersey. Participants completed online questionnaires that asked about indicators of emotional distress, Covid-19 worry and concerns, workplace racial climate, workplace racial microaggression experiences, and demographic information. The study, published in Behavioral Medicine, concluded the following:

  • Nonwhite nurses reported significantly higher levels of emotional distress and overall worry about Covid-19.
  • A higher percentage of nonwhite nurses (61%) were very worried about Covid compared with the percentage of white nurses (41%) who were very worried.
  • Nonwhite nurses perceived more negative racial climates, with Black nurses reporting the most negative climates.
  • Nonwhite nurses experienced more racial microaggression experiences, and Black nurses experienced the highest number of racial microaggressions compared with all other racial groups.

Both study authors expressed how important nurses’ psychological needs are. “Taking time to speak to nurses to understand their needs and provide support would help with addressing moral distress,” Webber-Ritchey said.

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