Nurse Types / Most Stressful Nursing Jobs
Vocation is defined as “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation”, and that’s certainly true of nursing. Still, it is possible to love your job and find it stressful at the same time. That’s particularly true for nurses who work in high-stress positions.
Nurses who are under significant stress at work are at high risk for burnout and compassion fatigue. Fortunately, many hospitals and healthcare employers are beginning to recognize this reality, and are introducing workplace wellness and other programs to help nurses deal with job-related stress.
No two nurses are the same: Some thrive under pressure, while others will want to avoid high-stress departments. To help you anticipate the environment that goes along with different nursing positions, we’ve assembled a list of the most stressful nursing jobs.
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Most stressful nursing specialties
Intensive care unit (ICU) nurses
The ICU is an extremely high-pressure environment. Intensive care nurses are frequently asked to make split-second decisions, and the actions they choose can make the difference between life and death. Nurses may have to deal with ethical dilemmas and poor patient outcomes, which can frustrate any nurse.
It’s no wonder that burnout syndrome is so common among critical care nurses.
Emergency room nurses
ER nurses face stress levels that are similar to what first responders experience. Each patient that comes through the department’s doors is an unknown.
The fast-paced nature of this position can exhilarate nurses, but it can also cause them significant stress depending on their temperament, experience, and the nature of the particular patient’s condition. On busy days or nights, E.R. nurses may spend their entire shift on their feet without a break, even to use the restroom.
ER Nurses are required to engage with a wide range of patients and their families, many of whom may be in highly emotional or anxious states and who treat them with anger, frustration, or disrespect. According to one study, this stress can be exacerbated by non-patient factors, including regularly having to perform non-nursing functions. Finally, ER nurses often provide a first level of care and then have their patients referred to different departments. The lack of closure regarding patient outcomes can lead to distress.
Neonatal ICU nurses
Neonatal ICU nurses work with newborn infants who were born early and underweight or who have congenital disabilities, infection, or cardiac issues.
Watching these tiny newborns struggle can be stressful on NICU nurses as well as the children’s parents. NICU patients often develop complications without warning, and it takes significant strength for these nurses to fulfill their professional duties while also providing emotional support to those around them. However, the stress of the job is balanced by the satisfaction nurses feel when NICU patients are able to graduate from their care and go home with their families.
Operating room nurses
An OR nurse’s role entails working one-on-one with patients to provide quality care during their surgeries.
OR nurses often work extended hours due to physician demands or the requirements of complex surgeries. This means that they spend hours on their feet. The work requires close interaction with surgeons and techs, and requires patience and emotional intelligence.
Oncology nurses build relationships with their cancer patients over time, and this puts them at risk of witnessing people they come to care for succumbing to their disease. They also face health risks of their own as a result of exposure to the toxic chemotherapy drugs they administer to patients.
Psychiatric nursing involves far more than most people realize. These professionals are constantly engaging with patients suffering from acute mental disease, and are frequently at risk of patients lashing out both physically and emotionally.
According to, almost all nurses (88.6%) have experienced verbal violence and more than half (56.1%) have experienced physical violence. The risk is far higher for psychiatric nurses than for those in other roles.
Final words on the most stressful nursing jobs
Identifying the most stressful nursing jobs is highly personal – what one nurse finds intolerable, another will find exhilarating. While the positions listed above all have aspects that can contribute to stress, they also provide rewarding opportunities.
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- “Is a Career in Neonatal Nursing Right for You?” nann.org. Accessed Jan. 27, 2021.