Reviewed by: Shannon McPeek
Nurses are struggling widely with burnout across the American healthcare system. We’ve observed lack of support coming from one of two places. Whether that be not supporting your own mental health, or your organization failing to support you. Both can lead to significant feelings of burnout.
A study conducted by Kronos showed that not only are nurses trying to cope with the physical and mental fatigue that comes from a long shift, they also feel the telltale signs of burnout as a standard part of the job. According to the study, three out of five nurses say they are suffering from job burnout, even though they still love the work.
What is Nurse Burnout?
Nursing.org describes burnout as “a physical, mental, and emotional state caused by chronic overwork and a sustained lack of job fulfillment and support.” Burnout is said to be one of the six dimensions of distress and while every job has its stressors, the nursing industry has some of the highest burnout rates. It’s crucial to watch for signs of nurse burnout and take the necessary steps to provide a healthier workplace for those with healthcare jobs.
What Causes Nurse Burnout?
No matter how one’s burnout presents, burnout is a chronic issue among nurses. Nurses are on the frontlines of direct medical care. From advocating for their patients, comforting those around them, and being the last line of defense, these responsibilities can easily result in nurse burnout.
- Long hours – Working longer hours increases nurse stress, which leads to poor performance and a decreased ability to provide top-notch patient care.
- High stress environment – Every nursing profession brings its own challenges, but some specialties are naturally more stressful than others.
- Too many responsibilities – As expectations to provide a higher level of care increase, the ability for nurses to focus on their core responsibilities becomes more difficult. This leads to frustration and the inefficiency to complete their job to the standard they’d like.
- Lack of support – If nursing professionals don’t feel appreciated for what they do, that can lead to burnout and resentment towards the job, employer, or patients thus overshadowing any fulfillment.
- Sleep deprivation – Associating sleep deprivation with nursing is common. However, regular tiredness from less sleep or a long day’s work is different from total fatigue and exhaustion. If lack of sleep is affecting your daily life or if you struggle to wake up or fall asleep, these are signs of nursing burnout.
- Being around sickness & death – Being around sickness and death may come with the job but it can take a heavy toll. Making time for emotionally taxing conversations with patients and families adds a physiological hardship to a nurse’s already chaotic shift.
Nurse Burnout & COVID-19
With the rise of COVID-19 cases continuing to spread, many healthcare professionals feel the strain more than ever. As of mid-January 2022, there have been over 71 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and more than 889 thousand deaths. Before the pandemic, one-third of nurses reported burnout, and turnover was about 17% per year. Since the emergence of Covid-19, burnout has loomed around 50% while nurse turnover rates have soared to between 20% and 30%.
Fear of infection among healthcare professionals can put their psychological well-being and occupational efficiency at risk. Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, says “Rising numbers in patient volume, demands of making health care more businesslike, and the pressure of meeting more regulations and requirements have left nurses feeling overwhelmed and with less time to spend one-on-one with patients.”
He also states that the situation has deteriorated further since the start of the pandemic with some 60% to 75% of clinicians reporting symptoms of exhaustion, depression, sleep disorders and PTSD.
Symptoms of Nurse Burnout
Nurse burnout is a large problem and it’s important to recognize the signs so you can address the issue. Below, we have listed the physical and emotional signs and symptoms.
- You’re always tired – In a survey conducted by Kronos Inc., 25% of nurses reported that they were unable to get enough sleep between shifts.
- You’re sick (lowered immunity) – Because chronic stress depletes and weakens one’s body, burnout victims are more vulnerable to infections, colds, the flu, and other immune system disorders.
- Loss of appetite – Stress and a busy schedule can cause a lack of appetite.
- Frequent headaches or muscle pain – Chronic stress can cause headaches. According to recent research, every 10 percent increase in people’s stress levels causes them to experience tension headaches.
- Difficulty concentrating – Burnout has many of the same symptoms as depression, including memory and concentration problems.
- Reduced performance or productivity – Burnout can cause someone to be disinterested in everyday tasks.
- Compassion fatigue – The feeling where you have no more empathy left to give.
- You have overwhelming anxiety – Anxiety that comes from physical and psychological exhaustion, making nurses less adaptable to changes in their work environment and even less susceptible to patient needs.
- Loss of motivation – No longer feeling driven to perform your tasks as usual.
- Feeling helpless and defeated – You feel you have hit a wall and there’s no way of getting through it.
- Detachment, feeling alone – Feeling like you have no one to lean on for support.
- Increasingly cynical outlook – You predict negative outcomes and cannot see the good in situations.
Avoiding Burnout As A Nurse
Healing burnout requires the nurse to recognize the symptoms of burnout and take steps to repair the mind and body. Here are 10 steps on how to prevent nurse burnout.
Recognize the problem
Understanding where you are, emotionally and physically, is an important first step toward conquering or avoiding nurse burnout.
Ask for help
This is the most difficult thing for nurses to do. But change can start with this important step. Be candid with your supervisor about your need to take some time off and recharge.
Get more sleep
In today’s wired world, it’s particularly important to unplug and get a full eight hours of rest. Sleep allows our bodies to reset for optimal psychological and physiological functioning. Tricks to get a more restful sleep include telling others to respect your sleeping time, creating a peaceful environment, leaving electronics outside your bedroom, and limiting your caffeine intake to daytime hours (or earlier in your night shift.)
Eat good food
Getting back to the basics of self-care also requires looking at your body’s calorie intake and the types of foods you’re eating. Plenty of lean proteins and vegetables can help refresh the body. When coupled with a good night’s sleep and some exercise, you may just find the frustrating symptoms of burnout diminish.
Nursing places physical and mental demands on an employee. Adding yoga, cycling, or any of your favorite fitness classes can help improve your physical and mental well-being.
Studies show that the simple act of being outside in nature can ease burnout symptoms. Blood pressure and cortisol drop after a walk in the woods.
Take time off
Ironically, nurses struggling with burnout call off sick more often to try to get some rest. But “55 percent of Americans don’t take advantage of their vacation time, and nurses are a big part of that number.”
Use HR resources
Employee assistance programs (EAP) can help by offering employee resources like counseling, group therapy, or discounts to exercise classes. If your employee resources are not advertised, or easily accessible, speak with your team about how we can better communicate that these resources exist.
Seeing a therapist or joining a support network could be one way to help release some of the negative feelings and pent-up frustrations from a job that has become out of balance.
Find a hobby
Finding work/life balance again could mean that you need to think of other things outside of work. Could taking up a new creative project help you think about something other than work?
Nursing burnout is real and can seriously affect health care workers and frontline nurses. Finding balance again will take some effort but the journey back to work/life balance is worth it.
Addressing Nurse Burnout Head On
Healthcare professionals need to show the same compassion to themselves as they do their patients. It’s important to note that nurse burnout is not always avoidable but there are available tools and alternative options to help manage it. The one person you can count on to manage your emotional and physical needs is yourself. No one else can meet them for you. However, if one thing is for sure, it’s that your role in the healthcare field is extremely important and you, yourself, are extremely important.
Connect with travel nursing agencies to find a position that you love and values your work. Get in touch with MAS Medical Staffing today.
Reviewed by: Shannon McPeek, Founder of Operation Happy Nurse
Shannon graduated from Purdue University in 2016 with her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. She started her career at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in the Neonatal ICU, but then sought out a career in travel nursing. Shannon experienced serious anxiety associated with the nursing profession, which inspired her to create Operation Happy Nurse. She’s thankful for all the amazing people who’ve helped her create this stress-relief haven, as well as those who’ve supported her along the way.