10 Ways to Fight Nursing Fatigue

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated October 26, 2022
    Nursing fatigue is not the same as burnout, but it can contribute to burnout. Review these tips to help prevent and treat nursing fatigue.
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    • Nursing fatigue and burnout are not the same things, but nursing fatigue can contribute to burnout.
    • Nursing exhaustion can sneak up on a nurse quietly and quickly; it’s important to take preventive steps and address the problem early if it happens.
    • Tips to help prevent nursing fatigue include ruling out any underlying medical conditions, taking mental health days, adjusting your schedule, and using stress management strategies.

    Nursing fatigue and nursing burnout are not the same things. However, according to the American Nurses Association nursing fatigue is a significant contributing factor to burnout. Nursing fatigue may also contribute to ulcers, depression, and increased alcohol consumption.

    The Medscape Nurse Satisfaction Report for 2021 revealed that 35% of registered nurses (RNs) described themselves as “burned out” or “very burned out.” This was the highest level of all the healthcare professionals surveyed, an indication that the pandemic has taken a considerable toll on their mental health.

    Discover 10 tips our two nurses share, which have helped them and their colleagues fight nursing fatigue.

    Tips for Coping With Feelings of Exhaustion From Nursing

    There are three types of nursing fatigue:

    • Physiological fatigue results in reduced physical capacity.
    • Objective fatigue results in lower productivity.
    • Subjective fatigue results in nurses feeling weary and unmotivated.

    We talked with two RNs with years of experience coping with nursing fatigue and helping others live a holistic life. Nicholas McGowan, MSN, RN, CCRN, has been a critical care nurse for 12 years and hosts an online course to help nurses achieve their critical care certification.

    Yasmine Seidu, BSN, has a passion for helping nurses live their best life in and out of work. She shares that passion on her blog, Nursepective. The healthcare industry has an ethical responsibility to ensure staff have adequate time for rest and sleep to reduce the risks to staff and patient outcomes.

    Nursing fatigue can sneak up on a nurse quietly and quickly. It’s important to take preventive steps and address the problem early if it happens. McGown and Seidu share these tips to support your journey to better health.

    1. Rule Out an Underlying Medical Condition

    McGowan believes that self-care is critical to survival. He recommends before addressing other issues, nurses get a physical and have some baseline labs drawn. There are many reasons for fatigue and exhaustion, and some of those are underlying medical conditions.

    For example, is your vitamin D level optimal? Do you have kidney disease or mononucleosis? Chronic fatigue syndrome can make it difficult to manage your daily activities and mental health conditions, such as anxiety, can do the same.

    2. Self-Assessment

    Take an objective look at your life. McGowan suggests that when you can identify the factors that are creating fatigue and exhaustion in your life, you have a greater chance of treating it and preventing it. He advises taking a hard look at your career and whether you feel inspired or exhausted by your current job. Your mental health has a significant impact on your family and the rest of your life.

    “I believe a career should be assessed in terms of not just the benefits it offers, but in the flexibility and sustainability of the job,” he says. “The pay and benefits may be great, but if it leaves me routinely depleted or exhausted, it’s just a matter of time before I drown.”

    3. Stress Management

    Nurses are chronically exposed to emotional and physical stressors that take a toll on their physical and mental health. Seidu believes stress management is a key to maintaining your health and well-being. Stress is a normal part of everyday life, but chronic stress can lead to physical and mental dysfunction.

    “There are many different ways to manage stress, and what works for one person may not work for another. Try out different strategies like massage, hiking, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and many more,” she says.

    4. Mental Health Days

    A mental health day is time you take away from work to minimize your commitments and responsibilities. It is not a day you take off work to complete other responsibilities. Seidu recommends you do not accrue your paid time off for long vacations, but rather take the occasional mental health day when you need it.

    This offers you the time and space to rest, relax, and recharge your batteries. Consider using your mental health days to go for a hike, do some shopping, spend the day with friends, or just relax with a book or good movie to give your body and mind time to rest.

    The key is to steer clear of anything that resembles work.

    5. Adjust Your Schedule

    Nursing is a versatile profession that offers many options and opportunities. McGowan recommends that if you’re feeling fatigued where you’re working, talk to your manager. You may be able to take some time off or adjust your schedule to give you more time for rest.

    [intensive care unit] was cut back my hours from full time to part time. And with the extra day, I went back to school and started teaching nursing,” he says.

    6. Understand Your Spending Plan

    Sometimes nurses put up with a hectic schedule to cover their expenses. McGowan recommends you take a strong look at your spending plan and get rid of extraneous and frivolous expenses that contribute to your stress and fatigue.

    “I would rather drive a used sedan to work two days per week than drive a new sports car four days per week!” he says.

    7. Develop a Strong Support System

    Seidu believes that one of the most important ways you can maintain your sanity is to connect with your coworkers and develop a strong support system both inside and outside work. Good relationships can make the shift run smoother; a strong support system of friends and relatives outside work can help relieve some of your stress.

    “I’ve found that talking and joking around with my coworkers makes the time fly by. It can make the shift go by much quicker,” she says. “We often joked and had fun on our shifts, which made the long hours more bearable.”

    8. Consider a Patient Assignment Change

    To promote continuity of care, nurses are often assigned the same patients on consecutive days. However, when the assignment is challenging, it can add to your stress. Seidu recommends talking to the charge nurse about altering your patient assignment when things get a little too challenging.

    “The issue is, if your assignment is a very challenging one, having those same patients might not be the best idea. It is important to consider what will work better for you in order to make it through your shift without losing your mind,” she says.

    9. Set Boundaries

    Seidu also recommends that you learn how to set limits and boundaries with patients and their families. According to the Medscape Nurse Career Satisfaction Report 2021, 40% of RNs reported having experienced emotional abuse from their patients, 88% experienced physical abuse from their patients, and 33% experienced verbal abuse from their patients.

    “When you encounter a difficult and abusive patient, always remember caring does not mean you should expose yourself to verbal or physical abuse. You have a right to protect yourself,” she says. “If the situation gets too heated, walk away and come back when things have cooled down.”

    10. Take Care of You

    McGowan and Seidu agree that self-care is vital to preventing and treating nursing fatigue. In addition to setting boundaries, taking care of your schedule and watching your finances, it is vital that nurses eat a nutritious diet, get plenty of quality sleep, and exercise.

    Although nurses spend the majority of their day on their feet, and some research shows they may walk up to 26.25 miles a week while working, this is not exercise. Instead, it is movement, though is also essential to good health.

    Outside of work, if you’re able, get 30 minutes of exercise a day or 150 minutes or more in a week. Stay hydrated by drinking enough water so your urine is a light straw color. Get between 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night in a darkened room. Each of these steps can help support your physical and mental health and prevent nursing fatigue.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Nick McGowan, MSN, RN, CCRN

    Nick McGowan, MSN, RN, CCRN

    Nicholas McGowan is a critical care nurse with 12 years of experience in cardiovascular, surgical intensive care, and neurological trauma nursing. McGowan also puts his background in education, leadership, and public speaking to work to help other nurses. McGowan is an online learner who builds on his foundation of critical care nursing, which he uses directly at the bedside, where he still practices. In addition, McGowan hosts an online course at Critical Care Academy where he helps nurses achieve critical care certification.

    Portrait of Yasmine Seidu, BSN, RN

    Yasmine Seidu, BSN, RN

    Yasmine Seidu is a BSN nurse with great passion in caring for others. Also the founder of the nursing blog Nursepective, Seidu shares her passion of nursing with fellow nurses to help them live a holistic life in and out of work.