If you’ve landed on this article, you’re probably looking for solutions to your own burnout. Take a moment to think back: When did you first start feeling burned out?
Many nurses have lived with that feeling for a long time, but it may have set in much earlier than you thought. Janice Lanham, MS, RN, Nurse Coach, and faculty member at the Nursing School at Clemson University, believes that burnout begins long before nurses even start working in the field.
“Burnout doesn’t just happen when nurses graduate and start working as nurses. I think that in nursing school, we set them up to burn out because of the intensity and the rigor of nursing programs.”
What Is Burnout, Really?
Burnout is a simple term for what’s really compassion fatigue. It can take an extreme mental, physical, and emotional toll on caregivers such as nurses, physicians, first responders, and other professionals who care for others. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), compassion fatigue consists of two significant components: burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
And burnout is widespread. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reports that nearly 50% of professional caretakers across the medical field say they suffer from severe symptoms of burnout, including emotional and physical exhaustion, cynicism, and a lower sense of professional accomplishment or effectiveness.
If left undiagnosed and untreated, nurse burnout can have detrimental side effects, leading to poor job performance, medical mistakes, high turnover rates, and in the most severe cases, suicide.
Causes of Nurse Burnout
A wide range of factors can contribute to nurse burnout, including, but not limited to the following.
Heavy Workloads and Extensive Hours
Constantly dealing with high-stress situations every day makes it difficult for nurses to deliver the high-quality care they know their patients need and deserve. It also increases the likelihood of medical mistakes, which can carry high stakes for patients’ health and well-being.
Layer on long hours, and you have a recipe for disaster. Research has long proven that extensive nurse work hours are correlated with less than satisfied patients. This has had a negative impact on how nurses feel about themselves personally and professionally.
Furthermore, heavy workloads and long hours negatively affect nurses’ ability to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal lives. This lack of equilibrium often prevents nurses from sufficiently replenishing their energy and maintaining their own physical, emotional, and mental health.
Unsupportive Work Environments
In addition to the regular stress of nursing, unsupportive work environments can also significantly contribute to burnout. Two workplace factors have an exceptionally high impact:
- Exclusion from decision-making: Nurses play a vital role in healthcare and bring a unique, patient-centered perspective that business leaders might lack. But nurses are often excluded from critical decision-making processes, which (rightfully) makes them feel underappreciated and undervalued. These exclusions disempower nurses, limiting the professional autonomy they’ve earned through extensive training and education.
- Ineffective leadership: It’s no secret that most hospitals and medical facilities are short-staffed, and ineffective leadership can contribute to staffing issues–not to mention reduced morale among nursing units and individual nurses.
A nurse’s ongoing exposure to illness and death can become increasingly overwhelming if not adequately addressed and managed. Nurses treat sick and dying patients and offer emotional support to the patient and their families. This can prove very emotionally draining over time and contribute to nursing burnout.
Prioritizing Self-Care Helps Prevent Burnout
As nurses, it’s easy to forget ourselves because we’re so used to caring for others. But practicing self-care is incredibly important for healthcare professionals. Self-care doesn’t have to be time at the spa or extended time off. It starts, for instance, with things like adequate sleep.
In a 2021 case-control design study on sleep, COVID-19, and burnout, researchers Kim, Hedge, & LaFiura reported that less sleep correlated with higher levels of burnout. They found that earning even just one additional hour of sleep could lower the chances of burnout.
Additionally, incorporating self-care and having strong social support, spiritual care (religious or not), socialization, and other positive components (working out, yoga, meditation, rest, etc.) were all ways to boost morale and lower the chance of burnout. Taking time to prioritize yourself as an individual can minimize burnout over time. While you are an essential part of your professional community, who does an extraordinary job, it is crucial to take care of yourself. This act and sense of self-care can be modeled for colleagues and patients alike and those new to the nursing profession who may feel low just coming out of nursing school.
In episode 24 of “Integrative Nurse Coaches in ACTION!” podcast host Nicole Vienneau interviews Janice Lanham, and the two discuss burnout, nursing school, and how to prevent it altogether. Lanham explains that burnout begins in nursing school due to academic intensity, rigor, and a sense of competitiveness among nursing programs. It can be challenging to make adjustments; whether it be entering nursing school, balancing school work and personal life, and then exiting nursing school and entering the field officially-it can be a struggle, so it is important to equip nurses with the necessary skills, tips, tricks, and support to reduce burnout.
Support should be given from the academic institution nursing students are attending, and support should be available after graduation. This support can take shape in a multitude of ways, such as helping them create a well-being plan, consulting with a nurse coach regularly, coaching them around prominent issues and challenges they are facing, and being aware of burnout and how nurses can prevent it to the best of their ability.
Nurse burnout is a phenomenon; it is a syndrome. Most new nurses leave the field within the first one to three years of entering the profession. If they’re leaving their jobs that early, then burnout can’t be happening at year one, right? Burnout has been building, and risk factors have long formed and begun to take shape; they predispose them to burnout post-graduation.
It is important to have the proper nutrition, sufficient amounts of sleep, and engage in physical exercise whenever possible. These are the foundations or pillars of care. Finding an equilibrium between work and personal life is vital to a sense of stability and serenity.
Resources to Support Burntout Nurses
Luckily, we live in a technologically advanced world. Many resources are available to help nurses and healthcare professionals with burnout strive to prevent and recover from it. Many workplaces offer staff therapists, nurse coaches, and other resources. Advocate for yourself, your schedule, and your mental, physical, and emotional health. Below are several links and resources that struggling nurses may find helpful:
- 9 Self-Care Apps for Nurses
- Integrative Nurse Coaches in ACTION! Podcast– Episode 24 specifically discusses burnout
- Managing Fatigue During Times of Crisis: Guidance for Nurses, Managers, and Other Healthcare Workers
- Why Self-Care is So Important for Nurses
Explore the Well-Being Index Demo
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Additionally, nurses can find burnout-specific assistance as well as general well-being through a program created and developed by the NAM. The Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience helps increase the visibility of nurses and healthcare professionals regarding burnout, stress, depression, and suicide.