Background Moral distress is caused by situations in which the ethically appropriate course of action is known but cannot be taken. Moral distress is thought to be a serious problem among nurses, particularly those who practice in critical care. It has been associated with job dissatisfaction and loss of nurses from the workplace and the profession.

Objectives To assess the level of moral distress of nurses in a medical intensive care unit, identify situations that result in high levels of moral distress, explore implications of moral distress, and evaluate associations among moral distress and individual characteristics of nurses.

Methods A descriptive, questionnaire study was used. A total of 28 nurses working in a medical intensive care unit anonymously completed a 38-item moral distress scale and described implications of experiences of moral distress.

Results Nurses reported a moderate level of moral distress overall. Highest levels of distress were associated with the provision of aggressive care to patients not expected to benefit from that care. Moral distress was significantly correlated with years of nursing experience. Nurses reported that moral distress adversely affected job satisfaction, retention, psychological and physical well-being, self-image, and spirituality. Experience of moral distress also influenced attitudes toward advance directives and participation in blood donation and organ donation.

Conclusions Critical care nurses commonly encounter situations that are associated with high levels of moral distress. Experiences of moral distress have implications that extend well beyond job satisfaction and retention. Strategies to mitigate moral distress should be developed and tested.

You do not currently have access to this content.