Nurses and nurse aides in long term care report rates of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) double that of the general population — results that should lead providers to more aggressively support and communicate with their workforce, authors of a new research study said Tuesday. 

The study suggests that providers should invest in mental health initiatives for their workers to address and prevent the effects of toxic stress. Nearly 60% of those surveyed had never sought mental health support for these traumatic experiences. 

ACEs are a series of 10 types of abuse, neglect and household challenges that can impact children. Youngsters who go through more of these events over a greater period of time are more likely to experience “toxic stress” — an unhealthy, prolonged stress response that damages both mental and physical health into adulthood.

Nearly three-fourths (73%) of 1,100 frontline workers surveyed were found to be at high or intermediate risk of this toxic stress, according to study results released by staffing company KARE and the National Association of Health Care Assistants on Tuesday.

Intermediate risk (39%) was defined as experiencing 1-3 ACEs, while care workers who experienced 4 or more ACEs (34%) were considered high risk.  

Nurses and nurse aides — referred to in the study as the “careforce” — were twice as likely as the general population to be at high risk of toxic stress. 

The results of this study should give providers new insight into the effects of burnout on their workers, the authors suggested.

“It is likely that members of your careforce are resilient survivors of trauma, and as part of the strong post-acute care community, everyone has a duty to recognize and address this impact of trauma and the potential for resilience,” they wrote. “The careforce is increasingly vulnerable to job pressures and organizational stressors, leading to higher risks of emotional exhaustion, burnout, and compassion fatigue.”

Burnout, the high emotional demands of caring for vulnerable seniors and even workplace violence have plagued the long-term care workforce — adding to a noxious cocktail of factors that have helped fuel the national care worker shortage.

Registered nurses are particularly vulnerable to toxic stress, experiencing 3.2 ACEs on average, 0.5 higher than the rest of the sector’s frontline workers. 

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently ranks nursing and healthcare among the most stressful professions,” said Katie Rhone, senior vice president of HERO and employee experience at KARE. “With 34% experiencing high toxic stress, the study emphasizes the urgent need to evaluate mental health benefits for our careforce.”