Nurse burnout is becoming more commonplace than ever before, with 41 percent of nursing professionals admitting they feel overworked and stretched too thin. Staff shortages, increased job responsibilities, and government regulations are among the top reasons that nurses feel stressed to the max.
Becoming disengaged with your job is not the only sign of nurse burnout. Weary nurses become less productive, are easily frustrated, and may call in sick more than their peers to avoid the stress associated with their jobs. When nurses reach this level of job fatigue, it can affect their relationship with their coworkers and the level of care they administer to patients.
As Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, CFNP and author of The Nurse Practitioner’s Bag put it, burnout is “not just ‘a bad day’ but actually a collection of symptoms.”
Factors contributing to nurse burnout
Nursing is a rewarding job, but it also can be demanding. Nurses who are so focused on providing the best possible care for their patients can sometimes forget to recharge their own batteries.
Several factors contribute to nurse burnout:
Long shifts and double shifts are becoming more frequent in nursing. On average, nurses work up to 12 hours at a time, with infrequent breaks. The research is clear on the harmful effects this kind of shift work has on nursing professionals. Longer working hours also contribute to patient dissatisfaction with the level of care received. Working longer hours causes stress and fatigue, which in turn decrease a nurse’s ability to provide top-notch care to patients. Moreover, nurses who are consistently tired and overworked are more prone to making critical errors.
Poor working environments are cited by nursing professionals as a top reason for burnout. Poor management and leadership and a lack of teamwork are the kinds of issues that create a deficient work experience for nurses.
According to Tasha Holland-Kornegay, PhD, LPCS and founder of WIRL (Wellness in Real Life),
“Another important factor is the type of work that nurses specialize in. For instance, working in emergency departments or intensive care units, where nurses encounter traumatic injuries and high mortality rates, can greatly increase the risk of burnout.”
Increased workloads are another issue that causes nurses’ stress and anxiety on the job. Nursing shortages account for some of the necessity of increased workloads. Poor management of a healthcare environment can lead to shortages of qualified staff. Nurses are expected to work harder to make up for incompetent managers, but become burned out and end up quitting themselves, worsening the shortage situation. It is a vicious cycle.
Difficult patients are par for the course when you are a nurse. However, that does not mean that conflict with patients cannot discourage nurses and make them feel inadequate. When nurses begin to doubt their skills and abilities, they can quickly become disengaged from their jobs.
Situations like these can also cause nurses to begin experiencing compassion fatigue. “This is especially relevant for nurses who work in end-of-life care where, despite all of their great work, patient recovery isn’t likely,” says Holland-Kornegay.
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Steps to combat nurse burnout
Combatting nurse burnout requires awareness of the things that are contributing to your stress on the job. Some of these things – like poor management and high staff turnover – are not in your control.
Anna Rodriguez, Founder of The Burnout Book, suggests that nurses first identify their own “triggers and THEN decide what change would be most meaningful. We can’t control the behaviors of others, only our own.”
Things like volunteering to work double shifts and an inability to say no to new commitments are factors you can adjust. So, the first crucial step in combatting nurse burnout is making an inventory of your stressors. Once you have this list, you can begin brainstorming the best solutions.
In the meantime, here are some other steps you can take to help you stay healthy and focused on being an awesome nurse.
- Breathe in, breathe out – When situations feel like they are spiraling out of control, stop what you are doing, and focus on your breathing. Taking a few deep breaths in and out promotes a feeling of calm and can help you refocus on the best way to handle a situation. This breathing exercise is a common form of mindfulness, a workplace-friendly coping strategy that has been found to promote self-compassion, positive reactions to stress, and increased empathy among nurses.
- Set healthy boundaries – Setting healthy boundaries goes a long way in helping you avoid taking on more than you can reasonably handle. Do not let bosses or coworkers guilt you into biting off more than you can chew. Being firm about your limits does not make you a bad nurse. It makes you a smart one less likely to burn out. “If your facility is scheduling nurses for intense work days, advocate for a new schedule that helps you and your colleagues live more balanced lives,” suggests Holland-Kornegay.
- Engage in healthy practices – Nurses work long, weird hours. It can be difficult to find time for a bathroom break, let alone an hour of exercise or 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Prioritizing healthy practices such as eating healthy meals and snacks and staying hydrated are important pieces in the burn-out puzzle. Failing to take care of your health and well-being is a surefire recipe for disaster.
- Remember why you’re here – Dr. Tasha Holland-Kornegay emphasizes keeping this core principle in mind when feeling burnt out. She notes, “One of the most challenging aspects of burnout is the cynicism it brings into your professional and personal life. Nurses can begin to feel like they aren’t good at their jobs and that all of their hard work amounts to nothing. When those negative thoughts start up, remind yourself why you became a nurse, and remember that every day you show up, your providing invaluable care to patients when they need it most.”
Finally, nurses should remember that it’s ok to ask for help.
Terri Bogue, MSN, RN, CNS-BC and founder of ExtinguishBurnout.com reminds nurses that,
“Accepting support, whether from other nurses who are willing to watch your patients so you can eat or even go to the bathroom, or the significant other who is willing to take over some of your chores may be hard to accept…
Accepting support does not mean you are unable to do something it means there are others who are willing to share your load if necessary to prevent burnout.”