Throughout the pandemic, much attention has been given to nurses as “health care heroes!”

We have been lauded for our service to our patients and our self-sacrifice. But all the while, nurses are feeling undervalued as we work extra overtime and watch our colleagues walk away from the pressure cooker that is hospital care. It has become harder and harder for nurses to afford to live in the communities in which we work.

And the staffing crisis keeps getting worse, forcing us to take more patients than we’re comfortable with too often.

It would take 6,100 licensed registered nurses (full-time and part-time) to fill all the open positions in acute care hospitals in the state — which only accounts for one of the many settings where nurses are needed, according to a 2021 survey from the Washington State Hospital Association.

Yet of the RNs licensed in Washington state, 17% work in other states, according to 2021 data published by the Washington Center for Nursing.

The truth is health care systems are being propped up by a majority female workforce with a desire to care for others. Hospitals reap the benefits of systemic, historical sexism that devalues women’s work, and they use our dedication to caring for our patients to keep the cost of our labor artificially low.

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Nurses have been taught that a pat on the back and that feeling we get from giving back to our community should be enough. The flip side is we need to sacrifice time off and work until we are exhausted without complaint.

Providers such as physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants bill for every hour caring for others, but nurses are seen as an expense rather than an asset. Instead of being viewed as the backbone of hospital care, nurses are viewed as a line item in a budget whose costs are standing in the way of profits.

We nurses are there every hour of every day caring for patients and monitoring their healing. Almost everything that providers do that generates income for a hospital would be impossible without nurses.

Consider the following example: One afternoon, you notice that your child is having trouble breathing. As you walk through the sliding doors of a pediatric emergency department, it’s a nurse who performs the initial assessment and decides to immediately involve a provider.

The nurse gathers supplies in preparation so they can place an IV for medications and fluids and start a breathing treatment anticipating the provider’s orders. It’s a nurse or respiratory therapist who walks you and your child through the course treatment. It’s a nurse who cares for your child while in the hospital. Once the treatment is working, your nurse reviews with you how to monitor your child’s breathing at home and when to start breathing treatments.

This example doesn’t even begin to cover the more intangible ways that nurses care for and connect with our patients and families. We listen to them, laugh with them, sometimes cry with them, and try to lessen their stress and worry. But nursing is also our job, which pays our rent, feeds our families, and takes a toll on our physical and mental resources.

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The staffing crisis has highlighted the gender inequities inherent in our profession. We’re working short-staffed — playing the hero — far too often. At the same time, staff nurses, who have dedicated years and even decades to the hospital, are working alongside travel nurses who earn three times our pay and new hires who received a $10,000 or $20,000 hiring bonus.

We need to put a premium value not only on staff nurses but on the nursing profession.

Until we as a society reckon with sexism and how it has taken advantage of women-dominated caring professions, we will continue to undervalue nurses and other care providers. This will make it incredibly difficult to retain experienced nurses and lead to potentially unsafe situations for you and your family members the next time you must seek care.

So what can you do?

Support nurses around the state as we call for meaningful raises to encourage nurses to stay in or return to the profession. Many of us became nurses because it is a calling. Many of us have left because — as nursing currently stands — we are devalued as humans.