What percentage of nurses experience burnout? Nurse burnout has been a problem for years, but things took a turn for the worse in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, 34% of LPNs and 35% of RNs responding to Medscape Nurse Career Satisfaction Report 2021 reported they felt burned out or very burned out.
Nursing burnout statistics like these suggest the profession might be reaching a crisis point. Burnout creates all sorts of problems, from patients and teams losing great nurses, who opt out of careers they once dreamed of, to harmful effects on nurses’ mood, habits, and overall health. The stress, exhaustion, and complacency that burnout causes can lead to life - threatening mistakes, putting patients at great risk.
A high nurse burnout rate can also translate to costly turnover expenses, putting a large financial toll on hospitals. Think of it this way: the average cost of refilling one bedside RN position is $46,100, and the financial toll on a hospital can range from $5.2 to $9.0 million.
Nursing burnout can be prevented, however. The first step is to identify the root causes of burnout, and the second step is to create solutions. (Hint: These solutions involve setting boundaries and practicing self - care.)
This article takes a deep dive into the statistics on nurse burnout, its causes, and the effects of nurse burnout, after first sharing some basic information about this very important subject. The more nurses know, the more they can look after themselves and the teammates and friends they care about.
What Is Nurse Burnout?
The term “burnout” appeared as early as the 1970s, when American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe the emotional and physical stress experienced by those who worked in helping professions such as nursing. Since then, the definition of burnout has expanded to include the overall physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion a person feels as a result of being overworked. It is often characterized by disengagement and detachment, as well as a pervasive feeling of helplessness.
Burnout is not the same thing as typical job stress. Stress is usually felt when someone is over-engaged, while burnout is the extreme emotional and physical effects that stress can cause.
According to 2021 studies on the topic, burnout is most common in nurses who work longer hours than the standard 40-hour workweek. The odds of work - related burnout doubled for nurses working a 60-hour week, tripled when work exceeded 74 hours, and quadrupled when work hours exceeded 84.
What Do Recent Nurse Burnout Statistics Show?
Nursing burnout rates grew to alarming levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. A July 2021 Nursing Central survey of thousands of U.S nurses revealed the following:
- 95% of nurses felt burned out at the time of the survey or during the previous three years.
- 91% considered leaving or were actively looking to leave the nursing profession.
- Low staffing, emotional exhaustion, high workload demands, workplace morale, and lack of respect were the top five reasons contributing to nurse burnout.
- 44% of nurses brought their feelings of burnout to the attention of administration — but felt management did nothing to help.
- 27% did not feel comfortable bringing the issue up to management.
What Are the Symptoms of Nurse Burnout?
According to the NurseRegistry, these are some of the most common symptoms of burnout:
- Inability to focus or think clearly
- Difficulty remembering details or conversations
- Inability to make decisions or solve problems
- Depersonalization (i.e., patients become tasks to complete rather than people who need your care and empathy)
- Increased irritability or frustration
- Emotional numbness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Increased risk - taking behaviors
- Reduced ability to support your team
- Abuse of substances
It’s no wonder, then, that burnout manifests in daily life in many ways, including:
- Social withdrawal: Canceling plans frequently or avoiding making them in the first place
- Emotional exhaustion: Being cold and distant or avoidant
- Sleep deprivation: Not sleeping, oversleeping to make up for that lack of sleep, and never feeling rested
- Resentment of patients or doctors: Holding grudges against, avoiding, or being condescending toward certain patients and colleagues
- Frequent illness: Showing physical symptoms of a weakened immune system, digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation, or even heart palpitations
What Causes Nurse Burnout?
According to the results of a survey of nurses by Incredible Health, a leading factor that contributes to nurse turnover appears to be burnout. A survey and analysis conducted by Nursing CE Central in July 2021 sheds light on these causes of nurse burnout:
- Low staffing: More than 80% of respondents to the survey cited low staffing as a key cause of burnout.
- Emotional exhaustion: More than 76% of nurses responding to the survey said emotional exhaustion played a role in their burnout.
- High workload demands: Even before the pandemic, the nursing shortage caused nurses to take on more patients each shift. More than three - quarters of the nurses responding to the survey said these high workload demands contributed to feelings of burnout.
- Workplace morale and culture: High - pressure workplaces can decrease morale, lower productivity, and create a culture of division and criticism. Frequently linked to decreased morale are feelings of disappointment, distraction, and fear. In the Nursing CE Central survey, 66% of respondents said that poor workplace morale and culture contributed to burnout.
And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Other factors contributing to nurse burnout include lack of respect, physical exhaustion, pay and benefits, direct and indirect care of COVID-19 patients, interruptions during off hours, verbal abuse or bullying, and work schedule flexibility.
What Factors Affect Nurse Burnout?
Some nurses are more likely to experience burnout than others. A 2021 systematic review and meta‐analysis, for example, found that certain social and occupational factors increased the risk for nurse burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. These risk factors included:
- Younger age
- Decreased social support systems in the workplace and the community
- Low readiness to cope with COVID‐19 outbreaks among family members and colleagues
- Lower level of specialized COVID‐19 training
- Increased perceived threat from COVID‐19 exposure or illness
- Hospital workplaces with inadequate material resources and human resources
- High‐risk work environments
- Longer working time in quarantine areas
- Increased workloads
Compare the above to pre-pandemic factors, which were:
- Overwhelming workloads
- No breaks during shifts
- Lack of adequate sleep
- Excessively long shifts
What Are the Effects of Nurse Burnout?
There are great risks when it comes to nurse burnout — for nurses and patients. The rate of depressive disorders is higher among healthcare workers when compared with workers in other industries, especially during the pandemic. In fact, a 2021 meta-analysis found a relatively high prevalence of sleep disorders (44%), depression (25%), and anxiety (25%) among healthcare workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Burnout also indirectly affects the care healthcare workers provide. Nurses experiencing burnout may have trouble adhering to workplace guidelines, communicating effectively, avoiding medical errors, and preventing negative patient outcomes. Those with burnout may not provide the highest - quality nursing care; they may also pay less attention to detail and take more unnecessary risks. Burnout may even have a compounding effect, as increasing exposure to adverse events and providing poor care of quality may lead to even more psychological distress and burnout.
Burnout is having a significant effect on nurses, the institutions that hire them, and patients. This is especially true with the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic that shook the medical community. Fortunately, nurse burnout is preventable with a few lifestyle changes on the part of nurses and shifts in administrative approaches.
Originally published on July 10, 2018.
Updated on April 25, 2021.
Updated by: Lynn H.