Experts report that compassion fatigue, often referred to colloquially as “burnout,” can take a physical and mental toll on nurses, first responders, physicians, and other professionals who provide patient care or work in emergency situations. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), compassion fatigue consists of two major components: burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reports that at least 50% of caretakers across medical fields report serious symptoms of burnout, including emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and low sense of professional accomplishment. If left untreated, the unfortunate side effects of nurse burnout can lead to poor job performance, medical mistakes on the job, high turnover rates, and even suicide.
In this guide, we offer tips from nursing experts on how to recognize symptoms of nursing burnout, the causes of this phenomenon, and the precautions medical professionals can take to prevent burnout.
Noticing Nurse Burnout
Nurses must first know the signs of burnout in order to prevent it. Nursing burnout can surface in a variety of ways but is frequently related to a handful of symptoms, including fatigue, dreading going to work, feeling underappreciated, and feeling constantly overworked.
In many cases, burnout affects healthcare workers when their job physically and mentally demands too much of them for too long. Tina Gerardi, a registered nurse, says that “burnout can occur when nurses are overworked and experiencing a constant stream of high-stress situations, long shifts, and having to assist [patients’] families with emotional support.”
It’s also important for nursing supervisors and hospital leadership to be able to identify signs of burnout in others, so they can support and accommodate staff as needed. “Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system,” says Gerardi. “When they’re feeling overworked, physically and mentally exhausted, and not appreciated, it diminishes staff morale and can result in resignations and instability in the workplace.”
In addition to preventative actions taken by employers, supervisors, and managers, nurses need to take extra precautions on their own to avoid nursing burnout.
Tips on Preventing Nurse Burnout
Practicing self-care and mindfulness is one of the best ways for nurses to prevent burnout. This includes regulating one’s shift schedule as much as possible and avoiding overloaded responsibilities whenever possible.
Additionally, experts encourage nursing professionals to build strong relationships with co-workers and others outside of work. Even though human resources departments, supervisors, and managers can serve as support systems in high-stress times, our experts suggest that nursing professionals should also build a supplemental support system. In this section, we offer our experts’ best tips for nurse burnout prevention.
1. Develop Strong Interpersonal Relationships
Gerardi suggests that solid relationships inside the workplace and at home play a crucial role in battling nurse burnout. Having someone to talk to about emotional distress and the balance of personal and professional pressures helps nurses deal with high-stress situations.
“While nurses can turn to colleagues and managers for support, it’s important that they have someone outside of work who can listen to their concerns, and give the emotional support needed to help nurses return to their next shift feeling present and prepared,” she says.
2. Set Boundaries Between Work and Personal Life
While it’s easier said than done, Gerardi suggests, “when your shift ends, leave any thoughts, feelings and grievances about work at work and make a point to focus your time spent at home with family, friends and doing activities that you enjoy. Be present and mindful.”
3. Get Enough Sleep
Most of us know the value of sleep, but we cannot overstate its importance for nursing professionals trying to avoid burnout. Even if nurses need to significantly adjust their sleeping schedule, our experts recommend that nurses fit in at least eight hours of sleep each day or night, depending on their schedule. Enough sleep can improve alertness, concentration, stamina, mood, and motivation.
4. Care for Physical and Mental Health
Multiple experts stress the importance of maintaining a regular exercise routine coupled with a well-balanced diet. Gerardi suggests that nurses should exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, including walks during breaks at work and a scheduled workout time after shifts. “Making time for this physical break will help your body feel rejuvenated and give your mind a mental break from the work at hand,” she says.
Nurses should prioritize their own mental health, too, by taking time off when needed. “If you feel like you’re at the point of burnout and you can’t take any time off, consider calling in sick,” suggests LaCresha Sims, a productivity and mindset coach and former nurse. “Being sick shouldn’t only mean physical symptoms such as a fever or cough. Not feeling well mentally should also constitute a sick day.”
5. Therapy or Assistance Programs
When possible, nurses should take advantage of any therapeutic or counseling services offered by their institution. They can also find these types of services outside of work.
Rita Trofino, a registered nurse and associate dean of the School of Health Sciences at St. Francis University, suggests that nursing professionals talk to their human resources department to locate employee assistance programs or individual or group therapy options.
Nursing Shortage and Burnout
The increasingly problematic nursing shortage in the U.S. negatively affects nursing professionals across the country. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), insufficient staffing causes greater levels of stress and dissatisfaction for nurses today.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 75% of nurses surveyed in 2005 reported that nursing shortages led to increased stress levels among nurses, decreased the quality of patient care nurses provided, and drove many workers to leave the profession.
Nursing and other healthcare professions are greatly affected by the steadily retiring baby boomer generation. In fact, an estimated one million RNs will retire by 2030. Furthermore, nursing schools across the country have been unable to expand their capacity to meet this rising demand for RNs.
Regarding the effects of the nursing shortage in 2020, Trofino says that “the nursing shortage will increase the rate of burnout in our hospitals. With a shortage, many nurses are asked to work longer or double shifts. Exhaustion is a factor in burnout. Overworking leads to job dissatisfaction.”
Sims echoes these points with her personal experiences, adding that “when you’re surrounded by other nurses that are unhappy about working extra hours, it’s harder for you to… enjoy the career you’ve chosen.”
“It’s also easier to feel burnout when your hospital is already understaffed and nurses continue to turn in their letter of resignation,” she says. “You know that you’ll be picking up the extra work because nurses are leaving faster than they’re being hired.”
According to Gerardi, “All nurses are susceptible to feeling burnout, as is any professional who is experiencing longer work hours and a lack of workplace support.” There are, in her opinion, work environments and nursing specialty areas that are prone to causing or experiencing nurse burnout. “Oncology, critical care, and ICU nurses tend to report the most cases of burnout due to the high-pressure environment of these specialties,” she says.
Trofino also notes that emergency room nurses experience frequent high levels of stress and appear to experience nurse burnout more frequently than healthcare professionals in different speciality areas.
Nursing Burnout During an Infectious Disease Outbreak
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected healthcare professionals’ mental and physical health by presenting many unforeseen circumstances. In addition to the vast amount of unknowns about the virus itself, which causes unease among nurses working directly with patients, nurses often cannot find the relief they need to avoid nurse burnout.
These challenges are, in part, related to the aforementioned understaffing issues and lack of space to handle incoming patients. Additionally, nurses are so overworked that they may have difficulty following the self-care practices that benefit workers during an infectious disease outbreak. Trofino says that “[Nurses] often do not have time to think of coping. They also worry about their own protection if there is a lack of [personal protective equipment]. They worry about spreading this to family members once they go home.”
Previous outbreaks, such as the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in West Africa, reiterated the necessity of keeping healthcare workers trained in disease prevention skills. Only 25% of healthcare workers surveyed in Ghana reported feeling adequately trained to handle EVD cases. The disease went on to claim over 9,800 lives, including almost 500 healthcare workers.
With the increasing threat of COVID-19 in 2020, the U.S. cannot afford to overwork nurses and other healthcare workers. In addition to proper training based on the latest scientific information, nursing professionals today need the appropriate time and energy to practice self-care to provide ample support for COVID-19 patients in the U.S.
Resources to Prevent and Cope With Nurse Burnout
Various online and in-person resources can help healthcare workers prevent or recover from burnout. While not available in all healthcare facilities, Sims urges nurses to seek out staff therapists. Sims also encourages nurses to talk with administrators to advocate for more flexibility in nursing schedules, further mental health support, and days off for self-care. Trofino suggests that nurses consult sites such as:
The collaborative of more than 200 organizations also strives for, “evidence-based, multidisciplinary solutions to improve patient care by caring for the caregiver.” Members of this group gain access to the organization’s information hub, evidence-based research papers, and online self-care and professional development resources.
Meet Our Experts
Tina Gerardi, MS, RN, CAE, is a master’s-prepared registered professional nurse with nearly 40 years of experience as a healthcare practitioner, advocate, and leader. Gerard currently serves as the executive director of the Tennessee Nurses Association (TNA), where she actively advocates for healthcare environments that allow Tennessee nurses to thrive. Tina has dedicated her career advocating for policy initiatives that support nursing practice and education at the state and national levels.
Rita Trofino, DNP, MNEd, RN, is the associate dean of the School of Health Sciences and Nursing Department Chairperson at St. Francis University. Trofino received her BSN and MNEd from the University of Pittsburgh, and her DNP from Carlow University, Pittsburgh, PA.
LaCresha Sims has been a nurse for over six years, with experience in cardiology, family practice, rheumatology, and geriatrics. She has ventured away from bedside nursing and started her online business at Noguideformom.com as a productivity and mindset coach for busy moms. Although the way she helps people has pivoted, her passion for helping has remained the same.
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