Emergency medical team transporting a patient

The Challenges of Working in a Hospital Environment

Learn More About the Challenges Faced by Nurses

Emergency medical team transporting a patient

Nurses are the foundation of all modern healthcare systems. They provide direct patient care, educate patients and their families, and act as important liaisons between patients and physicians—and that’s just before they’ve finished their first cup of coffee.

Because nurses carry so much of the workload in hospitals and other clinical environments, they also face certain challenges on the job. To help you decide if becoming a nurse is right for you, we’ve gathered some of the common obstacles nurses may need to overcome throughout their careers.

Looking to explore some of the top-paying nursing careers? Check out our list of the 16 highest-paid nursing jobs.

How Many Nurses Work in Hospitals?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 3.1 million registered nurses currently licensed in the United States, about 60% (1.7 million) work in hospitals. Demand for nurses is at an all-time high, with over 200,000 new nurses needed yearly in the US alone.

The demographics of nursing are also shifting to reflect the overall population more closely. While about 80% of current nurses identify as Caucasian, over 40% of new nursing students come from minority backgrounds.

The Challenges Faced by Nurses Working in Hospitals

In addition to the physical and psychological toll of working in a hospital, many nurses encounter occasional challenges with staffing, administration, and workplace communication.

Physical and Emotional Demands

Nurses spend long hours on their feet and walk an average of 4-5 miles during a 12-hour shift. That doesn’t include all the bending, squatting, and lifting they do while repositioning or transporting patients. While you don’t have to be an elite athlete to become a hospital nurse, it’s definitely a physically demanding job.

The emotional demands of nursing can also be intense. Exposure to death, high-stress environments, and difficult patients or families are all part of the job. In one survey, 60% of nurses said they’d experienced high levels of emotional exhaustion due to their work environment. Another study from the American Nurses Foundation found over half of the nurses have experienced an extremely stressful, disturbing, or traumatic event at work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nurses working in hospitals must take self-care seriously and not hesitate to seek professional help when necessary.

Staffing and Resource Shortages

Staffing shortages have become a serious problem in nursing due to several factors. Over half of all US nurses are over 50 years old, and nearly a third are planning to retire within the next five years. Combine that with increases in burnout and turnover since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you end up without enough nurses to care for patients.

When nurses are tasked with caring for too many patients, they may be more likely to make mistakes and become frustrated by the inability to provide proper care to each patient. One survey saw 62% of nurses report feeling overwhelmed since the start of the pandemic.

And when hospitals don’t have enough nurses or resources to manage their volume of patients, the results can be dire. Understaffed hospitals have higher patient mortality and higher rates of preventable medical incidents.

Communication and Collaboration

Caring for hospitalized patients requires an entire team of providers and support staff, often working in shifts around the clock. Communication, collaboration, and thorough record-keeping are essential to avoiding medication errors and other serious issues. Many nurses experience communication challenges at work due to ineffective policies or difficulties with electronic health record (EHR) systems.

Breakdowns in communication can lead to medical errors and poor patient outcomes. One study estimated communication issues caused as many as two-thirds of the most severe adverse patient outcomes in hospitals. However, nurses who build strong communication skills and proactively seek out collaboration with their colleagues can mitigate many of these issues.

Group of medical professionals in masks

Administrative and Regulatory Challenges

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are subject to intense regulatory requirements intended to protect patient safety and privacy. Nurses working in hospitals must have a thorough knowledge of healthcare regulations. They’re also often asked to complete time-consuming administrative work that takes away from the available time they can spend with their patients.

60% of nurses in one survey reported the hours they spend on administrative tasks as one of the top three challenges they face on the job. Fortunately, many hospitals recognize the need to streamline these types of tasks for their nurses and are exploring health tech solutions to cut down on administrative time.

Occupational Hazards and Workplace Safety

Despite wearing protective gear and taking appropriate precautions, nurses still encounter some safety risks on the job. And while 61% of nurses work in hospitals, 74% of illnesses or injuries among RNs occurred in hospital environments.

The most common injuries for nurses are due to overexertion (a strained back, for example) and slips, trips and falls. Other common risks include contact with objects (like an accidental needlestick) and exposure to infectious diseases or hazardous substances.

Unfortunately, nurses have also experienced more incidents of violence, bullying, or harassment since the start of the pandemic. A survey from the American Nurses Foundation found that in the past year alone, 60% of nurses have been subjected to bullying or incivility at work, and 29% of nurses have been exposed to actual violence.

Effective safety policies, security measures, and training programs are essential to creating a safe working environment for hospital nurses.

Workplace Culture and Burnout

The increased demands placed upon nurses due to a global pandemic and ongoing staffing shortages have made burnout one of the biggest challenges for nurses. Survey data from the American Nurses Foundation shows 59% of nurses report being asked to cover additional shifts, either daily or weekly. And as many as 95% of nurses have reported feeling burned out at some point in the past three years.

Adequate staffing ratios and supportive workplace cultures are critical to addressing burnout among hospital nurses. Nurses entering the workforce should ask potential employers about what they’re doing to address burnout and inquire about the availability of support resources.

The Advantages of Working in a Hospital Environment as a Nurse

We’ve focused a lot on the challenges nurses face while working in hospitals, but there are also many advantages to being in a hospital environment.

Nurses who work in hospitals have the chance to treat diverse patient populations and work with people of all ages and backgrounds. Learning to relate to many different types of people is an essential skill for any nurse and one that’s best honed in hospitals that treat a wide variety of patients.

Hospitals are also home to the most diverse group of healthcare providers. In a hospital, you’ll have more chances to learn from experienced nurses and physicians, including specialists you’re unlikely to find in other clinical environments. Exposure to multiple disciplines of medicine is a great way to discover what interests you the most. This can help you get an idea of where you want to take your career and any additional certifications you should pursue. And because hospitals employ more nurses than any other type of healthcare facility, there are more opportunities for career development and promotions into leadership roles.

Full-fledged hospitals also deliver more advanced care than walk-in clinics or other facilities, so hospital nursing often provides opportunities to learn how to use specialized medical equipment. Due to their volume of patients, hospitals are often the first to embrace new tools and technologies that make nurses’ lives easier. Additionally, knowing how to use the latest medical technologies can make any nurse a more attractive candidate for potential employers.

Finally, while hospital nursing can be hectic at times, many nurses thrive in a fast-paced environment and take great satisfaction from the significant contributions they make every day. If there’s one challenge you’re unlikely to face as a hospital nurse, it’s boredom!

Smiling nurse forming a heart with her hands

Ready to Begin Your Nursing Career?

While hospital nurses will face many challenges throughout their careers, many find the rewards drastically outweigh the tough things about the job. Still, addressing these issues is essential to solving the staffing shortage, creating a better work-life balance for nurses, and ultimately delivering better patient care.

By joining professional organizations to amplify their voices, nurses can advocate for policy and legislative changes to address these challenges and build a more sustainable healthcare system. And even if you’re not a nurse, you can still help by supporting organizations working for healthcare reform or simply by spreading awareness on social media.

Thanks to experienced instructors who understand the demands of working in a hospital, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program at Provo College prepares nursing students for successful careers. You’ll graduate with the knowledge and skills you need to overcome challenges and make a difference in countless people’s lives.

Looking to learn more about a career as an RN? Check out our detailed guide on how to become a registered nurse.