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 experienced nurses 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, experienced nurses 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 nursing contributors suggest that nursing professionals should also build a supplemental support system. In this section, experienced nurses offer their 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
Maintaining a work-life balance and prioritizing relationships as a nurse can be challenging.
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 the importance of good sleep for nursing professionals trying to avoid burnout. Even if nurses need to significantly adjust their sleeping schedule, our contributors 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. For new nurses, surviving your first nursing night shift can be a whole other challenge, but we have some tips for you on that too.
4. Care for Your Physical and Mental Health
Multiple experienced nurses 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. LaCresha Sims, a productivity and mindset coach and former nurse, even suggests calling in sick, if you're at the point of burnout and you can't take any time off.
"Being sick shouldn't only mean physical symptoms such as a fever or cough," Sims said. "Not feeling well mentally should also constitute a sick day."
5. Seek Out Regular Therapy or Assistant 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 stress from 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.
"The nursing shortage will increase the rate of burnout in our hospitals," Trofino says. "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."
Burnout is High in Oncology and Emergency Care
According to our research and information from our experts, nurse burnout can occur across specialty areas but disproportionately affects nurses working in oncology and emergency care roles.
"All nurses are susceptible to feeling burnout, as is any professional who is experiencing longer work hours and a lack of workplace support," Gerardi said.
There are, in Gerardi's 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.
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:
- Managing Fatigue During Times of Crisis: Guidance for Nurses, Managers, and Other Healthcare Workers
- Coping with Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks
- Taking Care of Your Behavioral Health During an Infectious Disease Outbreak
- Preventing and Managing Stress: Tips for Disaster Responders
- COVID-19 Pandemic Response Resources
Additionally, nurses can find assistance with burnout and general well-being through a program launched by the NAM. The Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience helps increase visibility of healthcare worker burnout, stress, depression, and suicide.
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 Contributors
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. Gerardi 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 No Guide for Mom 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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