The lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic have threatened nurses’ well-being in unprecedented ways. A growing number of nurses are reporting burnout and even leaving the profession.
If you are a nurse with feelings of burnout, this article is for you. Overcoming nurse burnout will not only benefit you but the countless individuals and communities you serve.
Use this article to learn about the symptoms and causes of nurse burnout, plus ways to find relief and renew your passion for nursing.
You’ll also learn how to avoid burnout by advancing your education through online nurse practitioner (NP) master’s degree programs such as those offered by Wilkes University. Learning new ideas and developing new skills can be beneficial to your personal development and are useful ways to engage your creativity and critical thinking.
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, a sense of 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:
Health care workers are more likely to experience job burnout. Their jobs are tremendously rewarding but also physically and emotionally demanding.
Approximately 16% of all nurses reported burnout in the latest National Nursing Engagement Report. That figure rose to 41% among “unengaged” nurses.
What Are the Effects of Nurse Burnout?
Nurse burnout has the potential to affect every person in America. It is a pressing public health issue.
Chronic stress associated with burnout can result in numerous diseases for nurses. Nurse burnout may cause mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, suicide ideation or drug and alcohol abuse. 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, they are the largest segment of the healthcare workforce. They are also involved in the delivery of most health care services.
Because nurses have an extensive role in public health, their burnout poses a critical threat to Americans' well-being.
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 are leaving their jobs because of burnout. In 2008, approximately 17% of nurses said they left their jobs because of burnout compared with 32% in 2018.
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.
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.”
Taking measures to prevent nurse burnout will help nurses as well as the patients they so compassionately serve.
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 behaviors of leadership are just a few.
Another factor is the health care setting. Nurses who work in hospitals were 80% more likely to cite burnout as a reason for considering leaving their jobs.
Demanding Work Schedule
Many nurses face demanding work schedules. Working long shifts, overnight or overtime can create physical and emotional challenges that lead to burnout.
For example, a 2019 report by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) showed that nurses are more likely to experience burnout if they worked 10 hours or longer in a shift.
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.”
Burnout caused by inadequate staffing also leads nurses to exit the profession. Roughly 2 in 3 nurses who left their job because of burnout described inadequate staffing in their workplace.
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.
Some nurses have reported that administrative tasks 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.
How Can Workplaces Prevent Nurse Burnout?
Health care 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 of organizational intervention. Health care leaders, such as NAM and The Joint Commission, have recently called on organizations to address the growing problem.
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.
The following sections explain how to ease nurse burnout by maintaining your physical and emotional health. Use these 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:
- Meaningfulness of work
- Career commitment
- Personal well-being and satisfaction
- Work engagement
Perhaps you became a nurse to make a difference in peoples’ lives, or maybe you were inspired by your interactions with nurses.
Whatever your motivator, recalling it will help you feel content. Nearly 9 in 10 nurses who responded to the 2020 Nursing Trends and Salary Survey said they would still become nurses if they had the choice again.
Adopt Health-Promoting Behaviors
Taking steps to improve your physical and mental health is necessary to overcome nurse burnout. 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 hospital-based Registered Nurses (RNs) in one study met the physical activity guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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.
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 disease. Focus on practicing healthy sleep habits to boost your focus, energy and performance at work.
Try these tips from the CDC for better sleep:
- Follow the same sleep schedule each day as your nursing shifts allow
- 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
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 five relaxation apps, available for free on iOS and Android:
Invest In Yourself
Investing in yourself means 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.
Make time to seek enjoyment. Research shows that pleasurable activities enhance well-being. Read a book, cook your favorite meal or sit in the sun.
If your idea of treating yourself involves making a purchase—for example, new shoes for better arch support—take advantage of the many discounts retailers are currently offering nurses.
We’ve compiled a list of notable retail brands that offer well-deserved special discounts* to dedicated health care providers like you, including:
- Adidas: 30% off
- Asics: 40% off
- Brooklyn Bedding: 25% off
- FitFlop 25% off
- GNC 15% off
- JanSport 30% off
- Levi’s: 25% off
- L.L. Bean: 15% off
- Lululemon 25% off
- Merrell 20% off
- Nike: 10% off
- Puma: 20% off
- Ring 20% off
- Reebok: 50% off
- Samsung: up to 30% off
- Sperry: 30% off
- Theragun: 20% off
- Under Armour: 20% off
- Verizon $30/line per month unlimited
- World Market 15% off
- Yeti 20% off
- Zenni Optical 10% off
*Most of these companies will require verification of identity through either Sheer ID or ID.me in order to access the discounts. We are not partnered with any of these brands and do not benefit from these links being used. These discounts are not exclusive to Nurses Month, and are subject to change.
Investing in your personal growth is another way to alleviate nurse burnout. As a nurse, you already understand the importance of lifelong learning. How have you applied that philosophy to your personal life lately?
Learning about new subjects, developing new skills or trying new hobbies are useful ways to grow personal fulfillment. These activities will engage your creativity and critical thinking.
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.
If you’re seeking greater flexibility and autonomy in your nursing career, then consider preparing to become a nurse practitioner (NP) through a Master of Science in Nursing program. NPs enjoy more flexible schedules, independent practice opportunities and earning potential than RNs.
Advancing your nursing education will elevate your nursing career and help you reach your fullest potential.
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:
- Check-in 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 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.
Find Support with Wilkes University
Hopefully, this article has helped you recognize nurse burnout and understand various ways to prevent and avoid it.
If you're an RN who's experiencing burnout and are considering transitioning out of your bedside nursing job, you can earn your MSN and enjoy a more flexible and autonomous career as an NP.
Wilkes University’s online NP master's degree programs will 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.
Learn more about our online NP master’s degree programs.
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