Published December 7, 2022

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood

The New Jersey Nursing Emotional Well-Being Institute supports the emotional needs of nurses.

While the public showered nurses with well-deserved praise as health care heroes during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the workload remained when the public’s interest waned. And now, after caring for patients through a years-long health care emergency, many nurses have found the unrelenting stress to be too much. Across New Jersey and the country, nurses are leaving the workforce in droves.

“Nurses are caretakers,” says Lois V. Greene, a nurse by training who serves as interim chief strategic integration and health equity officer at University Hospital in Newark. “But we don’t necessarily care for ourselves.”

That’s why Greene participates in the New Jersey Nursing Emotional Well-Being Institute (NJ-NEW), a collaboration of the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing (NJCCN) at the Rutgers School of Nursing and Rutgers University Behavioral Health to support the emotional needs of nurses throughout the state. NJ-NEW provides free, research-based programming to bolster nurses at both individual and organizational levels.

“A resource like NJ-NEW gives us a moment to breathe and remember that life can be difficult,” says Susan W. Salmond, NJ-NEW’s director and executive vice dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing. “We want to operate at our best, so it’s important that we do some self care.”

Initially funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NJ-NEW recently received additional support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. The grant is the latest in a more than two-decade partnership between Rutgers University and the Millburn-based Foundation, which makes grants to reduce disparities in health care delivery and improve access to quality care for vulnerable populations in the Newark area and the Jewish community of Greater MetroWest.

To date, the foundation has awarded Rutgers and its partners more than 150 grants, including a $3.2 million gift in 2003 to establish The Healthcare Foundation Center for Humanism and Medicine at New Jersey Medical School, which promotes empathy and compassion for doctors-in-training. The grant funded an endowment for the center’s operation and annual student scholarships. Examples of more recent grant initiatives include those tackling opioid use, children’s mental health, and healthcare advocacy within the greater Newark area, to name a few.

According to executive director Michael Schmidt, the foundation has also long recognized the need to support New Jersey’s health care workers. The COVID-19 pandemic brought that need, for nurses particularly, into sharper focus.

With the NJ-NEW program, Schmidt says, Rutgers was equipped to support the nursing workforce. “We saw NJ-NEW as a priority new initiative we wanted to be at the forefront of supporting,” he says. “This grant is an opportunity to bolster nurses and help institutions retain nurses at a time when many are experiencing staff shortages.”

A key component of NJ-NEW is virtual Schwartz Rounds, where nurses can come together to discuss the emotional cost and personal impact of caring. Through NJ-NEW, these hour-long nurse-to-nurse discussions are facilitated by behavioral specialists and focus on specific nurse populations, such as school nurses, or key themes in nursing, including burnout, the nursing shortage, and building resilience.

Each session opens with one or two nurse panelists sharing a brief personal story related to the discussion’s theme, says ​​Jennifer Polakowski, assistant director of NJ-NEW. Then participants break into smaller groups for more intimate and purposeful conversations.

Some 4,000 nurses have so far participated in more than 55 such sessions, which can count for a continuing-education unit. “We end with some self-care strategies like deep breathing,” Polakowski says. “It’s not always new content, but it’s reinforcing what we all need to hear sometimes, that you can take five minutes, take a pause, maybe go for a walk to help you reset yourself for the day.”

And to address their needs at the institutional level, NJ-NEW is also training nurses in Stress First Aid, a stress recovery framework that they can bring back to their workplaces. Meant to help organizations build a more resilient workforce, Stress First Aid uses a color-coded stress continuum model (green, yellow, orange, and red) to make it easier for people to communicate stress.

“Nurses want to feel valued. They want to be heard,” Polakowski says. “We hope this framework helps as a way to communicate within their organization in a way that feels safe and comfortable. It’s a big shift in nursing culture.”

Finally, NJ-NEW is building a repository for programming, services, and resources related to nurses’ emotional well-being and resilience. The goal is to bring together a host of evidence-based materials in a centralized repository that nurses can access around the clock.

“We want this program to expand and grow and meet nurses where they are.” Polakowski says.


For information about contributing to the NJ-NEW program, please get in touch with Jennifer Polakowski.