Nursing is an incredibly rewarding job. It also is one of the most stressful. Burnout from nurse stress is unfortunately a common occurrence. Nearly half of professional nurses indicated in a recent study that stress has caused them to re-evaluate a career choice they previously loved.
Common causes of nurse stress
So, what causes nurses to run screaming from a profession they worked so hard to enter? Some of the most common sources of nurse stress include:
- Staffing shortages that result in working overtime and even double shifts. These same shortages can force nurses to take on more patients, making it difficult to administer adequate and proper care.
- Time constraints make it difficult to complete all the paperwork and other requirements of their job outside of direct patient care.
- Conflict with management or coworkers is another major stressor for nursing professionals. It can be frustrating trying to work in an environment where leaders and coworkers contribute to patterns of poor performance.
- Lack of control over their work environment can trigger feelings of anxiety and aggravation.
Sometimes patients themselves are the main source of stress for nurses. Talk to any nurse in the profession. From newbies to seasoned veterans, all have had at least one patient who has taxed them to the very limits of their patience.
Symptoms of stress in nurses
Stress does incredible things to the human body. It can bring on bouts of constant fatigue and make you dread getting out of bed in the morning (especially if you are scheduled to work a shift that day).
Sometimes, stress can alter a person’s normal mood and personality. Nurses who normally are patient and kind but suddenly find themselves angry and insensitive to others may be stressed out.
One of the most serious symptoms of nurse stress is illness. Stress to the point of burnout can make a nurse physically sick. If you are dealing with any of these symptoms, it is time to speak to your healthcare provider to determine the best solution for your situation. Do not wait until you hit the peak of burnout before seeking help.
Putting a face to nurse stress
Dawn Jones, an RN for 31 years who practices in Denver, Colo., said the most stressful part of her job is dealing with chronically short staffing. “Nursing acuity standards suggest, for example, I should have 4-5 patients on day shift. But reality is 7,” she said.
This causes her a lot of stress and anxiety because she knows that when she is overburdened with too many patients at once, she is more likely to make a mistake in the administration of their care. “Nursing is an unforgiving profession,” she said. “A single mistake could cost someone their life, or a nurse their nursing license.”
Spreading herself thin among too many patients is not the only source of her stress. Jones said there is a much darker side to the unrelenting overwork situation. “You leave for the day, often hours late, feeling unfulfilled. You know you weren’t able to provide the personal care that every patient deserves. The little things they have a right to expect and you entered into the profession to provide.”
Jones said this is the kind of day-after-day feeling that can cause young nursing professionals to lose their spark and resign. “That further adds to the shortage problems.”
Allie Watkins, Pittsburgh, Pa. nurse who is new to the job, said she concurs with Jones’s assessment. Watkins started her professional nursing career at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. She works in a hospital caring for moms and newborn babies. “Sometimes it’s hard when you have several moms and babies to care for at the same time,” she said.
Thanks to COVID-19, Watkins said she has extra stress that extends beyond nursing shortages. In her hospital, all the nurses are being asking to train on different units and jump in where needed. Sometimes this means working as nursing assistants so other nurses can relocate to COVID-19 units.
How to manage your stress as a nurse
Completely eliminating the sources of nurse stress is not realistic. Some issues – like a global pandemic that is pushing nurses to their limits – eventually will subside. Others, like ongoing staff shortages, likely will not. Nurses who choose to stick it out need effective solutions for managing their stress.
Meditation is one of the most recommended stress management techniques for nurses. Jones said it is one of her favorite coping mechanisms. She also likes to take long walks alone while listening to her favorite upbeat music. “It’s a struggle sometimes to not bring your job home with you. The stressors tend to permeate through your personal life. But to survive, you must check it at the door – compartmentalize.”
Exercise is another effective stress reliever. Watkins said it is her go-to when the job becomes overwhelming and she feels like things are spiraling out of her control. Her favorite way to burn some calories and work off her frustration is with online workouts from her gym. Any form of exercise is appropriate for stress relief.
Professional development is another way to learn valuable tips for managing stress. Incredible Health offers free nursing CEUs on a variety of topics, including stress management and health and well-being. Earn contact hours toward your licensure requirements while learning some helpful tips to apply to your daily stress management.
Managing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic
As we enter a particularly difficult period during the growing global coronavirus pandemic, you may find that you feel more exhausted, stressed, or anxious than usual. Our already understaffed hospitals are facing the likelihood of not enough beds, not enough equipment, and not enough nurses and doctors. It’s normal to be concerned.
And it’s more important than ever for you to take care of yourself – physically and emotionally. Here are some tips for how to handle the stress of COVID-19.
Connect with your loved ones. Social distancing doesn’t mean disconnecting. There are a lot of ways to stay connected to your loved ones even when you can’t be physically present. The longer this lasts, the more isolated you’re likely to feel. Make a plan for how you’ll stay connected to your friends and family. We’re seeing everything from online dance parties to digital game nights and more.
Limit your exposure to the news. This doesn’t mean ignore the news – it’s important to be informed. But check the source, and limit how much time you spend reading the news or on social media if it’s causing you stress. You might download one of the apps that limits your time online, or delete apps from your phone entirely. Pay attention to how you feel during and after spending time online.
Find uplifting moments. All around the world, people are singing and clapping for their healthcare heroes. People are finding ways to show their loved ones they care when they can’t be together in person. Even in times of crisis or chaos, the beautiful parts of life are still happening all around you. What lifts you up? Your loved ones, time in nature, music? For every minute less you spend on social media, you get one minute more to do something you love. Prioritize what makes you feel good.
A final word on nurse stress
Nurse stress is a real problem in the profession. Failing to identify and cope with the stressors of the job can lead to lasting negative effects on a nurse’s mental and physical health. Take up a hobby, go for a walk, or spend some time engaging in mindfulness. Find the stress outlet that works best for you and speak to your healthcare provider if you are having difficulty managing.