What Is Nurse Burnout?

Victoria Hudgeons
Updated November 10, 2023
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Burnout in nurses is prevalent in healthcare, and it can lead to serious consequences. Learn about signs of nurse burnout and how to prevent nurse burnout.
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Nurses regularly help people recover from illnesses and injuries and witness the real and tangible impact they have on patients’ lives. While nursing is a fulfilling profession for many, the work has another side to it as well.

Nurses find themselves exposed to intense pain, physical and mental struggles, and death on a daily basis. These more stressful components of the job can get to even the most emotionally stable nurses.

When the stress of the job causes physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, this phenomenon is called nurse burnout. The majority of nursing professionals experience nurse burnout at some point in their careers. In fact, a 2017 Kronos study found that 63% — that’s nearly two-thirds — of nurses in hospitals reported experiencing burnout.

Burnout can make you feel helpless. If you find out what causes your burnout and know how to manage and ultimately prevent nurse burnout, you can still have a successful nursing career.

Nurse Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

Although nurse burnout and compassion fatigue share some similarities, they are fundamentally different phenomena.

Nurse burnout involves the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes with the stressful responsibilities required for nursing. In comparison, compassion fatigue results when prolonged emotional strain culminates in detachment and difficulties in providing empathetic care.

Compassion fatigue comes from working with victims of trauma, although this is not necessarily the case for nurse burnout. Compassion fatigue can also appear more quickly than nurse burnout and can even cause anger or existential despair.

The two conditions do lead to some of the same consequences, including emotional and mental exhaustion, self-isolation, and a lack of feeling fulfilled or accomplished in professional settings.

Causes and Effects of Nurse Burnout

Burnout can occur in anyone’s career. If somebody experiences considerable long-term stress, they can find themselves in a state of mental and physical exhaustion.

For nurses, burnout is the result of a high-stakes, demanding job that frequently exposes them to human suffering. Nurses see death and grieving families every day and work with patients who are in physical and/or mental pain. Additionally, nurses work long shifts — often 12 or more hours within one day. All of those factors can lead to intense burnout on their own. Circumstances such as not having effective support or leadership within the workplace can exacerbate burnout even more.

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes nurse burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” The WHO defines nurse burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Nurse burnout can cause irritability and checked-out behaviors, meaning nurses go through the motions of the job without really engaging. Not only can nurse burnout affect the nurses themselves, it can lead to less effective treatment for patients. Nurses might find themselves becoming forgetful or making mistakes due to their exhaustion, which can lead to discomfort or even harmful outcomes for patients.

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Nationwide Nurse Shortage and Burnout

Another factor contributing to nurse burnout is the nationwide nursing shortage in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of registered nurses could increase from 3 million in 2019 to 3.3 million a decade later. That’s an increase of about 7.2%.

Even though that growth rate suprasses the national average, many studies still predict that the demand for nurses will outpace the supply. That’s in large part because of the aging population of the baby boomer generation, who need more medical attention as they grow older. In addition, many nurses themselves will become older and retire.

Nurses must increasingly take on larger workloads in order to make up for nurse shortages within the workplace. As many experts note, this greater workload can lead to prolonged stress and ultimately burnout. In fact, in a study in the February 2014 issue of the journal Lancet, researchers discovered that an increased workload for nurses could increase a patient’s chances of dying by 7% within a month of their hospital admission date.

One of the four major reasons nurses are taking on larger workloads are budget cuts of ancillary roles such as CNAs, housekeeping, and dietary. RNs are required to expand their roles to not only patient care, but to keeping the rooms clean, delivering meals, and other responsibilities, which results in higher burnout and stress and more room for mistakes made.

Areas with High Levels of Nurse Burnout

Nurses often see greater burnout in particularly intense or high-stakes healthcare departments, according to a 2013 study from the College of Dupage.

The study found that nurses endure higher levels of burnout and compassion fatigue in oncology units. They often work with patients who are dying without any chance of recovery and must communicate with anxious and grieving families.

According to the study, nurses who work in emergency rooms also experience more severe burnout. On average, emergency room (ER) nurses see 50 patients during their shifts — over 12 times more than nurses on a normal medical-surgical floor, who see an average of four patients.

The study suggests that oncology or ER nurses who feel that burnout or compassion fatigue can affect the quality of their job should request to move to a different department.

Managing Nurse Burnout

There are resources available for nurses experiencing burnout symptoms that can hinder their ability to effectively carry out job duties.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests several tips for nurses dealing with burnout: prioritize sleep, check in with your coworkers, and use relaxation or meditation apps. Experts also suggest self-care and self-reflection; that means eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, and reflecting on your feelings after particularly difficult days. Another way to combat nurse burnout involves drawing a clear line between your work and home lives. In other words, do not bring the stress of work back home.

If you want more in-depth information on how to manage nurse burnout, you can find several resources online. To start, you can read helpful advice from nursing experts on how to combat compassion fatigue and avoid nurse burnout.

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