Nurse burnout is becoming an all-too-common phenomenon. In fact, according to Becker's Health Review, 70% of nurses report feeling exhausted and burned out at some point during their careers. Not only can this state affect your mood, habits, and overall health, it can also have a serious impact on your patients’ well-being. Plus, nurse burnout costs the healthcare system far more than most people may think: The National Taskforce for Humanity in Healthcare estimates that nurse burnout costs hospitals $9 billion a year, and the healthcare industry at-large about $14 billion a year.
With the level of stress inherent in many nursing jobs, burnout may seem like a foregone conclusion. But once the root cause is recognized, preventative measures can be taken. (Hint: They involve setting boundaries and self-care.)
What’s 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. According to the most recent studies on the topic, burnout is most common in nurses who work 12-plus 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, such as nursing. Since then, the definition has expanded to include the overall physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion a person can feel as a result of being overworked, and is often characterized by disengagement and detachment from their job. It’s important to understand that this kind of burnout isn’t your 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.
What Are Some Common Symptoms of Nurse Burnout?
Nurses who experience burnout typically resent their jobs and feel hopeless about making changes. According to the Nurse Registry, these are some of the most common symptoms of burnout:
- Inability to focus or think clearly
- Difficulty with remembering details or conversations
- Inability to make decisions or solve problems
- Depersonalization (i.e., you stop seeing your patients as people and think of them more as tasks to complete)
- Increased irritability or frustration
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Difficulty with 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 colleagues and patients
- 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 Kronos, Inc., a leading factor that contributes to nurse burnout appears to be fatigue. The survey data shows that nurses feel fatigued largely due to overwhelming workloads (a clear majority — 60% — reported they had too many patients and tasks to manage at one time), no breaks during shifts, lack of adequate sleep, and excessively long shifts.
According to the nurses polled in the Kronos survey, the following are four key factors that can lead to nurse burnout:
1. Overwhelming Workloads
Nearly all respondents — 98% — said their work is physically and mentally demanding. On top of that, 60% of respondents reported having way too many patients and tasks to manage at one time.
2. No Breaks During Shifts
Less than half of respondents — 42% — reported feeling fatigued because they weren’t able to take lunch and dinner breaks during shifts, and 41% reported not being able to take ANY breaks.
3. Lack of Adequate Sleep
A quarter of respondents (25%) reported not being able to get enough sleep between their shifts. Having irregular work hours can contribute to nurses’ lack of sleep because this can disrupt their regular sleep patterns.
4. Excessively Long Shifts
Nearly a quarter — 24% — reported that 12-hour shifts (as opposed to eight-hour shifts) was another key factor that contributed to their feelings of fatigue and burnout. (A 2012 study from the National Institute of Nursing Research backed this up.)
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Other factors that can cause nurses to burn out include poor leadership or management, lack of upward mobility, bullying from colleagues and administrators, and the emotional baggage that comes with caring for very sick or dying patients.
What Is the Burnout Rate for Nurses?
According to the Kronos survey, 85% of nurses reported feeling fatigued by their work, and 63% said that they are currently experiencing burnout from their jobs. Here are a few more statistics this survey uncovered regarding nurse burnout rates:
- 93% reported feeling mentally and/or physically tired at the end of the workday.
- 90% of nurses said that they had considered leaving the hospital they worked at to find a different job with better work-life balance.
- 56% of all respondents reported driving home drowsy after a shift; 12% actually pulled their vehicle off the road to get some rest.
- 44% were concerned that the level of care they could provide patients would suffer because of their fatigue.
- 37% of nurses said that they were worried about making a mistake at work; 11% admitted to making mistakes due to fatigue.
- 28% admitted to calling in sick just so they could rest.
In 2017, the RN network conducted its own survey in which it polled approximately 600 nurses. Here are some statistics that jumped out at us:
- 50% of respondents said that they have considered leaving the nursing profession entirely.
- 27% of those nurses explained that this was because they felt overworked.
12 Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself From Burnout
You can’t properly care for others if you don’t address your own needs first. To someone who’s committed their life to caring for others, this can sound almost counterintuitive. But asking for what you need, setting boundaries around your work, and performing self-care when you’re off the clock will put you in a better place to be the best nurse you can be.
To help you out, we’ve taken into account the underlying causes of burnout and compiled a list of things you can do to curb your risk.
If the problem is overwhelming workloads then...
- Delegate tasks as appropriate. You can delegate some tasks to colleagues who you know are equipped to handle them (and whose workloads are more reasonable). Before you do, though, double-check that your manager is comfortable with you delegating tasks to others, and that your state laws allow you to.
If the problem is no breaks during your shifts, then...
- Insist on taking short breaks. Be sure to take time to reset and recharge. Just 15 minutes of walking, meditating, knitting, or reading a book can help your mental state. Sometimes, this happens because there’s just too much to do and not enough staff to do it. (In those instances, it’s your manager’s responsibility to find ways to give everyone a break.)
If the problem is lack of sleep, then...
- 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 caffeine-free tea to work with you — and be sure to drink lots of water.
- Adjust your work cycle. Work with your manager to create a healthy work cycle your body can adjust to. Having a stable schedule will let you establish a regular sleep routine that works for your body and helps you recharge. 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.
If the problem is that you’re working shifts that are too long, then...
- Talk to your manager. One reason why nurses feel burned out is because they work irregular schedules or are asked to pick up additional shifts. If this sounds like you, consider sitting down with your manager to discuss what's going on and how you're feeling. Remember that they're there to help you be successful. You may want to ask for a lighter workload or get advice on how they personally handle feelings of burnout.
Sometimes, it really isn’t possible to make big changes at work, especially around scheduling. In this case, focus on what you can control and how you can respond to your needs gently, as if you were a patient or dear friend. Here are some simple self-care practices that may help:
- Make changes in your physical workspace. The environment you live and work in 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.
- 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 coworkers or friends in similar professions with whom you know you can talk openly. Make a point to stress the importance of positivity and confidentiality.
- Adopt some go-to techniques to help you decompress. Everyone has their own way of dealing with stress that works for them. Some people meditate or do deep-breathing exercises, some craft or clean, and others listen to or play music. There’s no one right way to decompress, so try a variety of techniques and see which one works best. Once you find the activity that works best for you, set aside 30 minutes a day to do it as a way to recharge your brain. This will increase your resilience whenever you start feeling the symptoms of stress creep in.
- Add some healthy fun into your life. Disconnecting from work stress is an absolute necessity in your field. 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.
- Make exercise a priority. 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. If you like to hit the gym or a class or meet a friend, schedule it. If you need to fit it in between other daily activities, you might consider downloading a step-counting app and challenging yourself to hit 10,000 steps a day.
- Take regular time to be proud of yourself. As humans, we have a tendency to focus on what we did wrong rather than what we did right. Consider journaling your experiences and cases, pointing out the value you’ve added, both big and small. (Just don’t include patient names.) This will remind you of everyone you’ve helped and of your successes.
- 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, 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.
Originally published on July 10, 2018.
Updated on April 25, 2021.