How to Avoid Nurse Burnout

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Three battery icons at full, half full and empty representing nurse burnout.

As a nurse, you’ve taken an oath to heal patients, but you also have a duty to take care of yourself. You’re likely to encounter work-related stress caused by a variety of factors, such as long shifts and an imbalanced nurse-to-patient ratio, and if your stress isn’t dealt with properly, it can lead to a phenomenon known as nurse burnout.

Burnout isn’t inevitable. Many nurses enjoy long careers in the profession by practicing self-care, creating a positive working environment, and enrolling in an employee assistance program. We spoke with multiple nurses to gather the best tips for overcoming burnout.

What Causes Nurse Burnout?

Nurse burnout, the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes from on-going periods of stress, can be due to many reasons. A study of nurses across the nation published in Health Affairs found some worrying statistics related to burnout. Nurses who work industry-standard 12-hour shifts are two and a half times more likely to feel nurse burnout symptoms than those working shorter shifts.

Stress doesn’t solely come from the long shifts, the study found. Nurses reported that working overtime, nights, and weekends, as well as the fatigue that comes with switching between shift schedules, are all major contributors to stress levels. Additionally, picking up extra shifts and being on-call can lead to increased weariness. The study’s findings raised awareness about how nurses experience stress at the workplace.

Similar to burnout, nurses can also experience a phenomenon called compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress disorder. The Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing described the condition as featuring a loss of compassion for patients over time, and it can develop while working closely and developing relationships with patients dealing with serious traumas.

Symptoms and Signs of Nursing Burnout

When a nurse begins suffering from burnout, physical manifestations of the disorder will be visible to others. Some symptoms and warning signs of nurse burnout, according to AMN Healthcare, include:

  • Arriving late to work
  • Calling in sick excessively
  • Having a negative attitude
  • Opposing workplace changes
  • Withdrawing from social circles

If you learn to recognize these signs of nursing burnout, you can implement ways to de-stress and overcome negative feelings before they become too much.

The Survival Guide for Your First Year as a Nurse

King University’s guide, How to Survive and Thrive as a New Nurse, gives you exclusive access to interviews with actual nurses on thriving during the early years of a nursing career. This guide includes tips for dealing with stress, a breakdown of day vs. night shift, what to expect in your first year – and it’s all free.

Access the Guide

Avoiding Nurse Burnout

Nurse burnout negatively impacts patient care. Research in Nursing & Health found an association between high levels of burnout and lower quality of care ratings, in a study that spanned data from more than 53,000 nurses in six countries. The same result appeared in a study from the International Journal of Nursing Studies.

Nurses are more effective when they are able to avoid burnout. Accomplishing both goals starts with the individual nurse and extends to the workplace and external support systems.

Practice Self-Care

According to the American Nurses Association’s code of ethics, nurses have a responsibility to “take the same care for their own health and safety” as they do for others. By caring for themselves, nurses can perform at their best during hectic shifts. Below are tips gathered from nurses on how they promote self-care.

“Find out early on how you can de-stress! Find a good massage therapist. Do things that make you happy and do those often. Wake up and think of three things you are truly grateful for. Take a weekend trip alone. Hang out with fellow nurses. Ultimately, you’re all in the same boat, so you might as well chart the course together.” – Robin G., RN

“Work out or find a hobby to do on your days off. Also, pack a healthy lunch and drink lots of water while at work.” – Anna H. APRN, FNP-C

Responses gathered from a Reddit thread on self-care for nurses:

 “When you feel overwhelmed, and you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, go to the nutrition room and grab a juice. Sip it for (a few) minutes and use the time to breathe slowly and let your body relax. After that, you can start prioritizing what needs to be done and what can wait.”

“Go easy on picking up extra shifts. There’s always going to be some available, but for example, if you’re working four (or) five 12-hour shifts per week (regularly) instead of the typical three, you’re going to get burnt out quickly. Here and there is fine, and the extra money is great, but remember to say ‘no’ sometimes!”

“On my days off, I would truly have a day off. Phone on do not disturb and silenced with vibrate turned off. I go where the signal is super weak or non-existent, and I go running or hiking or just the dog park with my two furrballs [sic]. I go places with my fiancé and his family, I spend time with friends, I see movies or play games. Unless I am on call, don’t expect me to answer my phone. That was my motto for the Navy and will be for nursing.”

Work Toward a More Positive Work Environment

Supportive work environments for nurses can decrease turnover and enhance patient and nurse outcomes, according to a special issue on nursing from the Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research.

Though nurse managers often set the tone of a unit, everyone can impact the environment. An article from AMN Healthcare noted that one of the most important aspects of a positive nursing environment is a supportive culture. Providing support to fellow nurses when they need it and seeking their guidance and experience when you have questions will pay off in the long run.

Creating a positive work environment for a nurse is not only helpful for nurses themselves, but also for patients. A study published in the Western Journal of Nursing posited that positive nursing work environments and a team spirit correlated with better patient care.

Use Employee Assistance Programs

Almost all healthcare facilities provide resources to employees, whether through health insurance plans or as a general benefit, such as employee assistance programs (EAPs).

Programs may differ depending on the employer, but employee assistance programs offer counseling sessions, self-care workshops, and educational programs to nurses struggling with feelings of burnout. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing found that nurses who took part in EAPs or wellness programs found them very helpful. In the study, a majority of nurses said that what they learned from their EAP would enhance their job skills. In addition, 75 percent of participants reported that the sessions were so informative that it would “completely and considerably” change how they perform as a nurse.

The effects of burnout can not only impact your health, but also your effectiveness as a nurse. Additional tips can help you sustain a long and enjoyable career as a nurse.

King University’s guide, How to Survive and Thrive as a New Nurse, gives you exclusive access to interviews with actual nurses on thriving during the early years of a nursing career. This guide includes tips for dealing with stress, a breakdown of day vs. night shift, what to expect in your first year – and it’s all free.