Self-care for nurses is more important than ever. Nursing professionals often work long hours in physically, mentally and emotionally challenging environments. A study released this year by the American Nurses Foundation reveals that more nurses than ever are hitting their limit. More than half of the nurses surveyed said they felt exhausted, and 43% said they felt “burnt out.”
Finding ways to incorporate nursing self-care will benefit you and help the countless individuals and communities you serve as you renew your passion for nursing. This article will cover the signs of burnout for healthcare professionals. We’ll also review some common causes of nurse burnout and focus on ways to treat the root cause of what you’re going through instead of just the symptoms.
What is Nurse Burnout?
Burnout in nurses is a type of work-related stress called job burnout. A person with job burnout will feel physically or emotionally exhausted, feeling reduced accomplishment and personal identity loss.
Job burnout symptoms vary by person. An article in the journal Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing describes the signs in clinicians as follows:
- Tension headaches and/or stress migraines
- Difficulty sleeping
- Brain fog
- Irritability and anger
Healthcare workers are more likely to experience job burnout. Their jobs are tremendously rewarding but also physically and emotionally demanding. According to the New York Times, nurse burnout can be less about caring for patients and more a symptom of administrative burdens and navigating the work environment. Overcoming nurse burnout means taking time for yourself, taking stock of your environment, and leaning on your support network. Implementing mental health practices that prioritize nursing self-care can get you back to your baseline and help you remember why you became a nurse in the first place.
What Are the Effects of Nurse Burnout?
Chronic stress associated with burnout can result in numerous health conditions for nurses. Nurse burnout may be linked to clinical mental health diagnoses, such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation or substance use disorders. A 2022 survey published in American Nurse shows that 17% of respondents described themselves as “emotionally unhealthy.” These effects can threaten nurses’ health, relationships and job performance.
Nurses play a vital role in health care. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nurses are the largest segment of the healthcare workforce. They are also involved in the delivery of most health care services. A burnout threat for nurses poses a critical threat to all Americans.
One example of this threat is that nurse burnout is contributing to the nationwide nursing shortage. Data from the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses (NSSRN) revealed that more nurses than ever were leaving their jobs because of burnout. Even before the pandemic, nurses leaving the field cited working conditions, fatigue and discouragement as reasons for leaving the profession.
Replacing these nurses is critical to meeting patient care demands and ensuring quality outcomes. Evidence shows that nursing shortages increase clinical errors, morbidity and mortality rates. In other words, without the support they need or the time for nursing self-care, we don’t just have nurses suffering burnout; we have a less healthy population.
Nurse burnout also reduces patient satisfaction. One study concluded that “a 10% increase in the proportion of nurses with high burnout was associated with 0.4% to 1.3% lower patient satisfaction ratings.”
What Causes Nurse Burnout?
Nurse burnout often results from a combination of challenging circumstances at work. This section will explore some of the most common contributors.
Stressful Work Environment
Perhaps the greatest contributor to nurse burnout is a stressful work environment. According to the 2018 NSSRN data, almost 69% of nurses who left their job because of burnout reported stressful work environments.
Work stress depends on many factors. The organizational structure, allocation of resources and a lack of strong leadership in the workplace are just a few. Nurses are people, and people need their basic human needs met. This means being fairly compensated, given a realistic workload, and supported with resources to provide excellent care for patients.
Another factor is the health care setting. Nurses who work in hospitals are 80% more likely to cite burnout as a reason for considering leaving their jobs. As of 2022, nurses in emergency room settings and behavioral health were among those most likely to leave their jobs.
Demanding Work Schedule
Many nurses face demanding work schedules. Working overnight or overtime can create physical and emotional challenges, leading to burnout. Shift work, in particular, can make it hard to fit in nursing self-care and accelerate burnout.
For example, a 2019 report by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) showed that nurses are more likely to experience burnout if they work 10 hours or longer shifts. The 2018 NSSRN data indicated that nurses who worked more than 40 hours per week were more likely to leave their job because of burnout than those who worked less than 20 hours.
Another source of nurse burnout is inadequate staffing. Higher nurse-to-patient ratios are linked to greater burnout. Nurses in one study were “23% more likely to experience emotional exhaustion for each additional patient they covered after exceeding a 4:1 ratio.”
The demand for nurses is growing at a rapid pace. By 2031, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job openings for registered nurses (RNs) will grow at a rate of 6%, while openings for nurse practitioners (NPs) will grow by a whopping 40%. At the same time, the age of the average nurse continues to creep up as many seasoned professionals approach retirement age. That adds up to a lot of empty positions to fill, and more nurses will need to be equipped to fill them. The nursing shortage can make it easier to find a position in the nursing field when you’re looking for a job. Still, it can be taxing for work environments when a low patient-to-caregiver ratio is ongoing.
Lack of Autonomy
Nurses may feel burned out from a lack of autonomy. As defined in the 2019 NAM report, autonomy is “the amount of freedom you have to control and plan your work activities and the input you have in decisions that affect the work.”
The desire for more autonomy and the inability to obtain it can be stressful. It is difficult to watch decisions being made without the opportunity to provide input. When clinicians have the ability and influence to voice their opinions, their ability to thrive in the workplace increases.
Some nurses have reported that administrative tasks can hinder direct patient care. Nurses spend significant time on duties such as:
- Completing clinical documentation
- Coordinating the delivery of care
- Managing the flow of patients
- Reporting quality indicators
- Ordering supplies
When nurses lack sufficient administrative time or support, studies suggest that administrative work becomes burdensome. The inability to balance direct and indirect care can be stressful and create feelings of burnout.
Technology developments in nursing informatics is giving time back to health care professionals. Nursing informatics empowers nurses by allowing them to spend more time with patients and improve outcomes. Read more about nursing informatics and it’s impact here.
How Can Workplaces Prevent Nurse Burnout?
Healthcare organizations have authority over many of the causes of nurse burnout. That is why they have an important role in preventing it.
According to the evidence, workplaces can take the following practical steps:
- Ensuring adequate nurse staffing
- Limiting the hours in each shift
- Implementing procedures and programs that improve clinician relationships
The prevalence of nurse burnout illustrates the unmet need for organizational intervention. Health care leaders, such as NAM and The Joint Commission, have recently called on organizations to address the growing problem.
When nurses advance their education and increase their choices in the workplace, they can better advocate for themselves and for each other. Restructuring a complex healthcare system should not be yet another burden for nurses to bear. Still, nurses may be best equipped to move workplace conditions into a more sustainable and patient-centric model.
How Can Nurses Alleviate Burnout?
Now that you understand nurse burnout and its causes, it’s essential to learn the steps you can take to address it on an individual level. The following sections explain how to ease nurse burnout by maintaining your physical and emotional health. Use these nursing self-care strategies to find relief and continue deriving fulfillment from the nursing profession.
Remember Your Purpose
Why did you become a nurse? If you’re feeling burned out, recall your purpose. Researchers have found that having a sense of calling to nursing is associated with improvements in the following:
- Meaningfulness of work
- Career commitment
- Personal well-being and satisfaction
- Work engagement
Perhaps you became a nurse to make a difference, or maybe you were inspired by your interactions with nurses. Whatever your motivator, recalling it will help you feel content. In the 2022 Nursing Trends and Salary Survey, many nurses cited COVID-19 as a difficult time that made them determined to keep being a nurse. Though salary concerns still ranked high among nurses when they discussed their job satisfaction, more than 50% of nurses said their priority was the ability to provide excellent patient care, and 82% of respondents said that if they had to do it all over again, they would still choose nursing as their profession.
Adopt Health-Promoting Behaviors
Taking steps to improve your physical and mental health is necessary to overcome nurse burnout. As a nurse, you probably know a lot about encouraging healthy behaviors in others, but it isn’t always easy to implement them in yourself. Nurse researchers with the National Institutes of Health have identified the following as effective health-promoting behaviors.
Healthy Eating and Physical Activity
As a nurse, you know the value of a balanced diet and regular exercise. These behaviors can ease burnout by strengthening your mind and body. If you find them challenging, you’re not alone. Only half of the hospital-based Registered Nurses (RNs) in one study met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) physical activity guidelines. Almost two-thirds said they ate fast food at least twice per week. Your personal and professional responsibilities may limit your time for extra meal preparation and fitness.
Here are a few ways to incorporate healthier habits into your workday:
- Hold standing or walking meetings during your shift
- Arrange healthy group activities before or after shift changes, such as walks or exercise classes
- Organize a fitness competition with pedometers or fitness trackers
- Bring a fruit bowl instead of sweets to share with colleagues
Generally, nurses don’t get enough sleep. But sleep hygiene is critical to longevity, mental health and more. It sounds simple, but sleep is a form of nursing self-care. According to the journal of the National Sleep Foundation, nurses “sleep nearly an hour and a half less before workdays compared to days off.” Insufficient sleep can worsen burnout symptoms and lead to chronic conditions. Focus on practicing healthy sleep habits to boost your focus, energy and performance at work.
Try these tips from the CDC for better sleep:
- Remove all electronics from your bedroom
- Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime
- Participate in physical activity during the day to fall asleep more easily
Solid relationships can be a form of self-care for nurses. Find relief from nurse burnout through healthy social connections. According to the National Institutes of Health, positive social habits enhance physical and mental health.
It can be difficult to nurture your relationships with a demanding work schedule. Mental Health America suggests adding a reminder to your mobile calendar to contact loved ones regularly. You can also plan a weekly or monthly time to meet with them so that it’s built into your schedule.
You may need social support beyond what your current relationships provide. Make new connections by enrolling in a class, joining a club or volunteering.
You may not be able to avoid stress at work, but you can develop more productive ways of dealing with it.
The previous health-promoting behaviors will help you manage your stress. You can also add simple relaxation techniques to your daily routine. Focused breathing, body scanning and mindfulness meditation are a few proven methods for reducing stress.
If these techniques are new to you, you may be looking for guidance. Hundreds of mobile apps provide precisely that.
Try these free relaxation apps available on iOS and Android:
Support Fellow Nurses
A lack of social support is a documented barrier to healthy living for nurses with burnout. That is why one of the best ways to combat nurse burnout is for nurses to support each other.
Supporting your colleagues can improve their physical and emotional health and your personal fulfillment. Here are a few ideas:
- Connect with your colleagues often because some may be hesitant to share their feelings proactively
- Provide emotional support when colleagues need it
- Serve as an accountability partner for health-promoting behaviors
- Model healthy behaviors at work, like taking breaks and making time for meals
Seek Professional Help
Nurses coping with burnout may feel physically or emotionally exhausted even after implementing the nursing self-care behaviors in this article. Depression and anxiety, in particular, can reduce nurses’ motivation to participate in health-promoting activities.
If feelings of burnout are preventing you from performing work or everyday activities, consider seeking professional help. Meeting with a mental health professional can help you:
- Solve problems
- Develop self-confidence
- Change detrimental behaviors
- Determine your goals
- Examine how your thinking affects your feelings
Visit the Mental Health America website for tips on finding a mental health professional.
Invest in Yourself & Your Future
Investing in yourself is another form of nursing self-care. This can mean engaging in activities that will enhance your happiness and fulfillment. Cultivating these feelings is an effective way to improve your mental health and prevent nurse burnout. Another way to invest in yourself is through professional development.
Participating in continuing education beyond what is required to maintain your RN license will build your nursing knowledge, skills and leadership. More RNs continue to advance their education by earning master’s degrees in nursing. Student enrollment in master’s programs has grown continuously for 15 years.
Find Support with Wilkes University
Hopefully, this article has helped you recognize nurse burnout and understand how you can incorporate self-care daily. Advancing your nursing education may be your next step in nursing self-care.
Wilkes University’s online nursing programs empower you to advance your nursing career and make a difference for patients and communities. We provide a high-value educational experience delivered by a passionate faculty of active clinicians, which includes clinical placement and unparalleled support. As a graduate, you'll be equipped to channel your passion and change lives.
If you seek greater flexibility and autonomy in your nursing career, consider preparing to become a nurse practitioner (NP) through our online Master of Science in Nursing program. NPs enjoy more flexible schedules, independent practice opportunities and higher earning potential than RNs.
You may want to move into a leadership role with an online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), or you may be an NP looking to provide greater continuity of care with a new specialty in an online Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) Certificate. No matter where you are in your nursing career, Wilkes is here to support you.
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