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Nurse Burnout: Risks, Causes & Prevention

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Stressed tired healthcare worker sitting on floor

Nurse burnout is something that most nurses will experience in their careers. The emotional, physical, and mental stress of nursing can lead to nursing burnout which decreases a nurse’s motivation at work and ultimately can impact their effectiveness.

As a professional who is so focused and dedicated to caring for others, it can be hard for nurses to find the space and time to take care of themselves. In this article, we discuss the importance of doing so to avoid burnout as well as some additional ways nurses can prevent burning out so that they can continue to love what they do.

What is Nurse Burnout?

The World Health Organization sees burnout as an occupational phenomenon and characterizes burnout as losing the ability to manage stress in the workplace causing you to lose energy, which ultimately leads to depleted bandwidth at work, cynicism towards your job and inability to meet all work requirements.

Nursing requires not only physical stamina, but also emotional and mental strength. According to a 2021 study by the American Nurses Foundation, 81 percent of their 22,000 nurses aged 34 years and younger expressed exhaustion; 71 percent felt overwhelmed; and 65 percent reported anxiety. And it is not getting better in 2022.

Causes of Nurse Burnout

There are several causes of nursing burnout. Nurses often work multiple back-to-back shifts filled with pressures of quick decision-making, long hours of caring for multiple patients who may not have positive outcomes and staffing shortages. This can cause nurses to feel disengaged and detached if they are not careful.

Nursing Shortage

Nursing shortages have been anticipated for several years as more experienced nurses retire. The demand for nurses is growing and there are not enough new nurses entering the profession. And the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated this shortage of nurses. The American Nurses Foundation Survey also reported that over half of its respondents planned on leaving their job in the coming months due to the current staffing shortage. And as nursing shortages grow, those who remain in the profession face ever-growing pressure to work harder and more frequently.

High-Stress Environment

It is no secret that nursing is a high-stress job. The pressures of making life-and-death decisions on a routine basis can affect anyone. Additionally, managing the care of patients, communicating with family members, facing systemic barriers in care delivery, training and orienting inexperienced staff, plus, many other factors can add to the stress of an already-difficult job.

Long Hours

Nurses not only do up to twelve-hour shifts but also work several of these shifts back-to-back. Because of how severe nursing shortages are becoming, most nurses will frequently be asked to work extra shifts, with many nurses working 48 hours or more a week. Nurses also like to bunch shifts together to make long periods of time off. This can result in working four or more twelve-hour shifts back-to-back, contributing to exhaustion and stress.

Difficult Patients

Dealing with difficult patients in nursing is part of the job, but with larger patient loads demanding patients are becoming more common. As patients become more demanding and less appreciative, nurses have the potential to become more burnt out.

Tired Frontline Nurse with protective suit during the third wave of COVID-19, ends her shift

Risks of Nurse Burnout

Nurse burnout creates multiple risks to patients, facilities, and the nurses themselves. The risks demonstrate what an important problem nurse burnout is.

Nurse Turnover

One of the main reasons that nurses leave jobs is burnout. This increases nurse turnover, leading to fewer experienced nurses being present on a unit and lower staffing levels. In turn, this increases the stress on the remaining nurses, increasing the likelihood of more burnout occurring. This increases nurse turnover even further, leading to an ever-increasing downward spiral that can have a very negative effect on a unit or on a facility.

Decrease in Patient Care

Nursing burnout produces decreased motivation and energy in nurses who were once invested in their jobs. This leads them to be less proactive and less involved in their positions. Ultimately, nurse burnout can result in a decreased quality of patient care.

Mental Health Strain

Burnout itself is a sign of mental health strain that nurses are experiencing. Burnout can lead to increased anxiety or to depression in nurses. A natural consequence of burnout is the decreased quality of care that nurses provide. Nurses often find their identity in their role. Because of this, nursing burnout can lead to the cognitive dissonance that further increases the risk of mental health strain.

How to Prevent Nurse Burnout

While nursing burnout is unique for each nurse, there are several steps that can be taken to help prevent nurse burnout. Nurse burnout prevention should be a combined effort between nursing staff and leadership.

Set Boundaries

Nurses should make sure that they have clear boundaries between their personal lives and work. Most nursing jobs will appreciate nurses who are open about how they feel about their jobs and will try to take measures to help nurses avoid burnout. Working with your employer to ensure that you have clear boundaries between your personal life and activities and your work life can help avoid burnout.

Improve Schedules

Nursing leaders should pay careful attention to how schedules are constructed, ensuring that the workload is distributed evenly across nursing teams. It is especially important for nurse managers to take into consideration the unique needs of each individual and to avoid overutilizing those who are more willing to take on extra work or have additional flexibility with their shifts.

Take Breaks

Taking vacation days are great ways to relax and change the scenery. Nursing leaders should check quarterly and ensure their staff is taking time off to rest and recharge.

Prioritize Sleep

An important part of avoiding burnout for nurses is self-care. Prioritizing sleep, as well as other components of self-care, will help nurses to avoid exhaustion and prevent burnout. In addition to ensuring that they get eight hours of high-quality sleep between shifts, nurses should also be sure to use their paid time off and take vacations, ensuring that they are well-rested.

Changing Specialties or Focus

If you are feeling too stressed in your current position, many nurses can switch into specialties such as Cath lab, medical-surgical and even travel nursing or earn graduate degrees to become a nurse practitioner and work in private practice or become a teacher and mentor the next generation of nurses.

Portrait of a young nurse/doctor

Closing Thoughts on Nurse Burnout

Most nurses will experience some degree of burnout during their career. This burnout can have negative consequences for their patients, employer and themselves. It is important that you recognize the signs of burnout the stress of a nursing job can create. If you are a nurse experiencing burnout, make sure to seek out support and put an emphasis on your own self-care, which can mean finding a new nursing job.

You can start searching for available nursing jobs with us today and if you are looking for a change of scenery, check out some of the travel nursing positions we have available!