Nurse Burnout: What Is It and What Can We Do About It?
Nurse Burnout: A True Story
During my senior year of nursing school, I accepted a twelve-hour night shift, patient care technician role on an oncology unit. While I knew I was taking on a more challenging schedule to finish my nursing degree, I felt the PCT role would provide experience and hopefully a future new grad nursing interview. While this plan panned out successfully, it also cost me the first burnout of my healthcare career.
Without knowing what burnout was, or what it felt like, it took a long time for me to recognize what was happening. I recall the job instantly feeling physically and mentally exhausting, with inappropriate ratios and expectations for everyone on the floor. It was common to be caring for an actively dying patient on hospice, all the while maintaining a full assignment otherwise.
I was stunned after assisting in my first post-mortem care, only to see the room filled with a new patient in what felt like the same breath. The tone of unacknowledged stress and sadness was palpable in every coworker. Soon after orientation, I started anxiously waiting in my car until the very last possible second before heading into work on time, dreading the inevitable experience. There were some days I even contemplated driving back home.
I was desperate to maintain my GPA in school, and my sleep schedule suffered for it. One morning after a night shift, I fell asleep behind the wheel and fortunately only popped a tire when I awoke after hitting a curb. Regardless of these symptoms, I silently carried on and convinced myself I just had to become more resilient. It wasn’t until I broke down one morning after taking the wedding ring off a young, motherly patient I cared for all winter, who had just passed, that I realized what the root cause of my burnout was.
Having lost my mother to cancer, my personal connection to caring for oncology patients was too heavy a burden to carry every shift. What I thought would be a healing experience, was anything but. While I became a nurse in my mother’s memory, my burnout taught me that I’m intended to care for a different patient population.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout, or “a physical, mental, and emotional state caused by chronic overwork and a sustained lack of job fulfillment and support,” is real and impacts roughly 35 to 54 percent of nurses and other medical professionals. Working long hours in a high-stress environment, many nurses cite burnout syndrome as one of their biggest fears in the profession. Burnout does not always look or feel the same, but healthcare professionals commonly report feeling physically or emotionally exhausted, with a low sense of personal accomplishment or satisfaction related to their jobs.
Burnout, if left untreated, will likely manifest itself outside of work, too.
Burnout “has been linked to higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide.”
While burnout can be detrimental for the wellbeing of healthcare professionals, the chain reaction results in “increased risks to patients, malpractice claims, worker absenteeism and turnover, as well as billions of dollars in losses to the medical industry each year.” For the sake of the vulnerable human beings, both caring for others and being cared for, I am hopeful systemic change is coming.
As a nurse from Chicago, who has traveled to the West Coast, I have personally observed and experienced environments with what I consider, in comparison, to be safer patient-care provider ratios as well as very large discrepancies in medical resource abundance. After more than three years at the bedside, I was provided my first official lunch break during my very first shift, and every shift thereafter, in California. (Yes, this is something I never experienced working in Chicago.)
To this day, I am still in awe at the number of bodies utilized in staffing one CVICU shift on the West Coast, as it is almost double the amount utilized in my Midwest exposure. Nevertheless, experience is relative, and nurses everywhere are victim to burnout.
As research suggests, a healthy work environment and strong unit leadership result in more positive nursing experiences and job satisfaction.
While these foreign environments and resources have significantly improved my own job satisfaction and ultimately my ability to provide higher quality patient care, a healthy work environment and strong unit leadership, impacted more by personalities and teamwork, arguably matter more. However, the challenges and shortcomings in creating the foundational legislation and culture for healthier work environments is significant.
What's Causing It?
Systemically, overruling the long-standing business model mindset of healthcare with unionization of nurses, application of such unions for change, reallocation of hospital budget, and adequate staffing with trained and available staff during a nationwide shortage are not tasks completed simply or quickly. And while I believe every nurse across the country deserves the same basic working conditions and resources, such seemingly bountiful environments are still not free of burnout.
As systemic changes require strong leadership and teamwork that may feel outside of your control, you can begin by looking elsewhere in the short term.
It’s important to focus on what can be done on a smaller scale to identify and prevent burnout.
Burnout is complex in that the causes and symptoms are unique to the individual, as are the solutions. Because of this, everyone can benefit from improving their self-awareness. Identifying your personal and professional needs, as well as potential stressors and warning signs, is necessary in order to have a clear understanding of why a work environment or specific scenario may cause you to experience your own unique symptoms of burnout.
Furthermore, developing an action plan to elicit when your burnout symptoms present themselves can halt the otherwise domino effect of burnout left untreated. Whatever your self care methods include, prioritizing your physical and mental health is vital when caring for the physical and mental health of others.
Understand that you are not alone, and try talking with coworkers, loved ones, or a professional to validate your reality, feel heard, and gain new perspectives and ideas for coping (one novel avenue is tele-therapy; you can test out a free week with BetterHelp).
Advocate for yourself and explore other career options if necessary. Most importantly, take the compassion and empathy you give to strangers and turn it inwards. Our jobs are not easy, so feeling emotionally or physically taxed by your role does not make you weak. It makes you human.
Use Free Resources
See what we’re doing here at Trusted to fight nurse burnout by visiting our mental health resources.