Nurse burnout isn’t your typical job stress. Not only can it affect your mood, habits, and overall health, but it can also have a serious impact on your patients’ well-being. On top of it all, burnout can lead to more mistakes and, ultimately, destroy the passion you once felt for your career.
Unfortunately, a shocking 70 percent of nurses report feeling exhausted and burned out during their careers. Take a look at the following signs and stats to know just how at risk you might be. Then, start implementing the solutions on a preventative—or even restorative—level.
What Is Nurse Burnout?
Nurse burnout is mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion caused by stress, job dangers, and frustration at work. It’s a constant feeling of helplessness, one that often leads to illnesses and career dissatisfaction. Burnout is most common in night shift nurses and those who work 12+ hours at a time.
The term burnout was first used in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the emotional and physical stress experienced by those who worked in “helping” professions like nursing. Since then, the definition has expanded to include the overall physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion a person can feel, and is often characterized by complete disengagement and detachment from their jobs.
What Are Some Common Symptoms of Nurse Burnout?
Nurses who experience burnout typically resent their job and feel hopeless about making a change. Some of the most common symptoms that accompany burnout are:
These emotions are usually accompanied by sickness, depression, and thoughts of being unproductive or useless. Understandably, burnout can often cause people to leave the nursing profession entirely, or feel trapped in a career that they no longer love or maybe even resent.
The following scenarios illustrate how these symptoms typically manifest in real life:
- Social Withdrawal: You cancel plans frequently. You may even avoid making them due to schedule issues—or just simply not feeling up to it.
- Emotional Exhaustion: New staffers may describe you as cold and distant. Perhaps it’s because you feel frustrated or “stuck” in your current role, or as if you’re just another cog in the hospital's wheel.
- Sleep Deprivation: You can’t fall asleep when you need to and may even rely on sleep medications. You often oversleep to make up for lack of sleep, but you never wake up feeling rested.
- Resentment of Patients or Doctors: You’re holding a few grudges against co-workers, intentionally avoiding certain colleagues and patients, or even being condescending to people at work. This daily frustration and anger is not your typical personality.
- Frequent Illness: You seem to come down with every passing virus. The stress of nurse burnout not only brings emotional symptoms, but physical ones as well. These may include a weakened immune system, digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation, and even heart palpitations.
What Are Some Ways to Prevent Burnout?
It’s important to take care of your body and mind at the first sign of trouble. Here are 11 changes you can make to offset your risk of burning out as a nurse.
1) Insist on downtime.
Work with your manager to create a schedule of short shifts that allow you to have the downtime your body needs.
2) Adjust your work cycle.
Create a healthy work cycle to which your body can adjust. Consider working one morning shift, one afternoon shift, one night shift, and then two days off to gradually adjust your body’s circadian rhythm to help combat sleep deprivation.
3) Add some healthy fun.
Plan one outing a week and see how it feels. Spending time at the gym, going out for lunch with a coworker or friend, or even setting up a regular date night with your significant other are all good ways to get your social life back on track.
4) Take time to be proud of yourself.
As humans, we have a tendency to focus on what we've done wrong, rather than on what we did right. Consider keeping a journal of your experiences and cases (just don’t mention any patient names). Aim at pointing out the value you’ve added, both big and small. This will give you a reminder of everyone you’ve helped and of your successes.
5) Find a support system.
There’s strength in numbers—and in sharing your feelings. See if there’s a nurse support group you can join, either in your hospital or your local community. Want something less formal? Consider getting together some co-workers or friends in similar professions with whom you know you can talk openly. Make a point to stress the importance of positivity and confidentiality.
6) Start a meditative hobby.
Disconnecting from work stress is an absolute necessity in your field. Adopt a (tech-free) healthy habit, such as yoga or knitting, and set aside 30 minutes a day to do it as a way to recharge your brain.
7) Schedule exercise.
Small bursts of daily exercise will encourage evening relaxation and boost endorphins to help your mood. Try taking a walk during a break or jumping rope when you wake up. You might even want to get some kind of step-counting device or app and challenge yourself to hit 10,000 steps a day.
8) Cut out junk food and limit caffeine.
As tempting as they are, foods with high saturated fat content have been linked to lighter, less restorative sleep. And, surprisingly, the effects of caffeine (even as much as six hours before bedtime) can reduce your sleep by an hour. Fend off cravings by taking fruit, veggies, and tea to work with you—and be sure to drink lots of water.
9) Find a trusted therapist.
Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. In fact, many hospitals provide an on-site psychologist for their employees to use when they need it. Therapists are invaluable resources because they give you the chance to share everything you’re feeling and thinking in a safe and confidential environment. They’re required to be impartial and objective, so they’re the perfect sounding boards when you have any issues or concerns you need to work through. Additionally, they also can equip you with the tools you need to prevent or overcome nurse burnout.
10) Make changes in your work environment.
The physical space in which you live and work can have a big impact on how you feel. So, take the lead on improving it every once in a while. Try adding fresh flowers to brighten it up, hanging up inspirational quotes to lift your teammates’ moods (check out this Pinterest board), or working with your colleagues to reduce clutter and create a more organized space.
11) Communicate with your manager.
Remember that your manager is there to help you be successful. Sit down and discuss how you’re feeling. You may want to ask for a lighter workload or get advice on how they personally handle feelings of burnout.