Registered nurses' experiences of working in the intensive care unit during the COVID-19 pandemic

Nurs Crit Care. 2021 Nov;26(6):467-475. doi: 10.1111/nicc.12649. Epub 2021 May 10.


Background: During the pandemic, increased numbers of patients requiring intensive care unit (ICU) admission required an increase in ICU capacity, including ICU staffing with competence to care for critically ill patients. Consequently, nurses from acute care areas were called in to staff the ICU along with experienced intensive care nurses.

Aims and objectives: To describe Swedish registered nurses' experiences of caring for patients with COVID-19 in ICUs during the pandemic.

Design: Mixed method survey design.

Methods: An online questionnaire was distributed through social media to registered nurses who had been working in the ICU during the COVID-19 outbreak. Data were collected for 1 week (May 2020) and analysed using content analysis and descriptive statistics.

Results: Of the 282 nurses who participated, the majority were ICU nurses (n = 151; 54%). Half of the nurses specialized in ICU reported that they were responsible for the ICU care of three or more patients during the pandemic (n = 75; 50%). Among non-intensive care nurses, only 19% received introduction to the COVID-19 ICU (n = 26). The analysis of data regarding nurses' experiences resulted in three categories: tumbling into chaos, diminished nursing care, and transition into pandemic ICU care. Participants described how patient safety and care quality were compromised, and that nursing care was severely deprioritized during the pandemic. The situation of not being able to provide nursing care resulted in ethical stress. Furthermore, an increased workload and worsened work environment affected nurses' health and well-being.

Conclusions: The findings from the present study indicate that nurses perceived that patient safety and quality of care were compromised during the pandemic. This resulted in ethical stress among nurses, which may have affected their physical and psychosocial well-being.

Relevance to clinical practice: The COVID-19 pandemic had a severe impact on nurses' work environment, which could result in burnout and staff turnover.

Keywords: COVID-19; nursing; occupational health; pandemic; qualitative research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Nurses*
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital*
  • Pandemics
  • SARS-CoV-2