- Laura Yeager said she was forced to leave her job treating psychiatric patients due to injuries sustained on the job.
- In the midst of a nursing staffing crisis, more psychiatric nurses are leaving due to violence.
- Half of hospital nurses report an increase in workplace violence, according to the profession’s largest union.
In her five years as a psychiatric nurse in Missouri, Laura Yeager had been bitten, kicked, slapped and spat on numerous times. Once, Yeager said, a teenage patient suffocated her. On another occasion, a patient kicked her in the head after she tried to restrain them.
Despite the violence he endured, Yeager said he sympathized with his young and vulnerable patients. She understood that when they lashed out, it was out of frustration at not being able to communicate her needs.
“When you work in a behavioral health unit,” Yeager told Insider, you have to understand that “it’s based on chaos. I mean, that’s the nature of it.”
In 2021, however, he reached a breaking point. As he mustered all his strength to restrain a violent patient, he felt a strange twist in his back. The pain shot through his body with such intensity that he could no longer move on. Over the next several months, Yeager realized that he would have to quit the job that meant so much to her.
Nurses being injured due to workplace violence is not a new story. Federal data shows that hospitals are among the most dangerous places to workand the nurses receive injured at a higher rate than all other occupations.
But abuse against nurses has worsened since the start of the pandemic, union leaders say. Now the nurses are quitting smoking en masseleading to a staffing shortage that puts the remaining qualified nurses under even greater pressure.
Yeager says she was trying to fill her role in “an already overtaxed part of the medical profession,” but for her and many others, it has become untenable.
“I’m a strong advocate for the behavioral health population, because that’s what they need. I’m mad I got hurt, I’m mad I can’t do it,” Yeager said. “The fact that more people get hurt and more people leave the behavioral health bedside…it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Avoiding workplace violence isn’t really an option, Yeager said
The largest nurses’ union in the country found that, as of October 2021, one-third of US hospital nurses. rise in workplace violence. Just six months later, they took the survey again and that number shot up to 48%, nearly half of hospital nurses nationwide.
Yeager says that he had been receiving more challenging cases over time, due to his years of experience and talent in dealing with the most difficult patients.
He took a strict but empathetic approach to his patients, assessing which ones would respond best to verbal reduction or “responsible restraint.”
But, at 40, he was among the oldest doctors on the unit, Yeager said, and he began to care more about the physical aspect of dealing with difficult patients.
“I said, ‘I’m probably one of the oldest nurses here, and I get the worst patient assignments because I have a background in behavioral health,'” Yeager said. “And lo and behold, three hours later, I was injured.”
The lack of staff made it impossible for Yeager to avoid physical labor, he said.
Following his injury, Yeager was unable to work for three months. Her doctors said that regardless of how well she progressed in physical therapy, she should be assigned less work that was physically demanding of her when she returned from medical leave.
The lack of staff made it almost impossible. In the months Yeager spent looking for remote desk jobs, she was repeatedly assigned to patients with severe psychological conditions who were more likely to turn violent.
The nurse said she would do whatever it takes “to get through the day,” including relying on pain medication and staying away from strenuous situations. “I probably ended up doing more damage to my body.”
Without intervention, worsening mental health will lead to more injuries in nurses, Yeager said
The rise in workplace violence against nurses stems directly from staffing shortages, National Nurses United President Jean Ross told Insider. Longer wait times can aggravate patients, and understaffing results in fewer people to help reduce violent situations.
The union has advocated for a bill that would require health centers to maintain enough nursing staff. The bill passed the House last year and awaits Senate approval, Ross said.
Yeager believes, from what she saw in the psych ward, that widespread death and isolation during the pandemic have “absolutely” made the mental health crisis in the US worse. Behavioral health patients have become more frustrated and angry. , he said, which increases the risk of violence towards nurses.
Although Yeager doesn’t know the solution, he predicts that both patients and doctors will suffer without more resources dedicated to psychiatric health and nursing staff.