nurse burnout

Nursing demands both physical and emotional strength. Nurses keep patients safe, advocate for their needs, educate, listen, empathize, adjust to sudden emergencies, and then save lives. Their commitment to health care is essential. 

But this commitment often comes with an overlooked cost: nurse burnout. 


What Is Nurse Burnout? Understanding the Causes and Symptoms 

Nurse burnout is not a new phenomenon, nor is it designated for registered nurses (RNs) only. Burnout can happen in any career, but in some industries, it's nearly an epidemic. Nursing is one of these industries.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by exposure to chronic stressors in the workplace. The demanding nature of the nursing profession, coupled with the high workload and long shifts, can take a toll on a nurse's well-being.  


A Frustrating Lack of Control 

In addition to the workload, other factors contribute to the development of nurse burnout. Nurses often face a lack of control over their work environment, which can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness.

There are times when the absence of adequate support from colleagues and superiors also contributes to the development of severe burnout. When nurses feel unsupported or isolated, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to cope with the demands of their job, especially in a high-pressure hospital setting such as an emergency department. 

A huge part of nurse burnout is the lack of support and resources within healthcare organizations. Despite a consistent need for nurses and the largest nurse's strike in history, there is still a compounding nursing shortage, with many nurses still facing:

  • Inadequate hospital nurse staffing levels
  • A high nurse-to-patient ratio, which can lead to emotional strain and an increased risk of patient mortality
  • Limited access to necessary equipment and supplies
  • Insufficient training and development opportunities

These challenges can impact a nurse's physical and mental health, leading to more stress, emotional exhaustion, and burnout.

Also, nurse burnout can be exacerbated by an unpleasant work environment and the hierarchical structure within healthcare organizations. Nurses may experience a lack of autonomy and decision-making power, as their roles are often undervalued and overshadowed by other healthcare professionals. This lack of empowerment among nurses can lead to feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction, further exacerbating burnout. 


A Rise in Chronic Exhaustion with High Nurse-to-Patient Ratios 

Nurses often work long hours without adequate rest. Depending on their environment, they might also need to cover gaps in the healthcare system or face barriers to getting time off, breaks, and other workplace essentials. Chronic fatigue can cause total burnout as nurses are pushed into physical exhaustion during those long hours.  

Burnout among healthcare workers can leave them feeling drained and overwhelmed, making it difficult to provide the necessary levels of care. The exhaustion can also affect their job performance.

One of the primary factors contributing to nurse burnout is the high nurse-to-patient ratio. Nurses are often overwhelmed with the number of patients for which they are responsible, which can lead to increased stress, fatigue, decreased patient satisfaction, and professional burnout. When nurses are spread too thin, they may not have enough time to provide the necessary care and attention to each patient, which may result in feelings of frustration and inadequacy. 


Excessive Administrative Tasks 

Excessive administrative tasks also play a role in nurse burnout. Nurses are often burdened with paperwork, documentation, and other administrative duties that take away from direct patient care.

Spending excessive time on administrative tasks due to poor work environments can lead to feelings of frustration and a lack of fulfillment in their role as caregivers. Nurses want to spend their time providing hands-on care to patients. When administrative tasks take precedence, it can lead to burnout. 


An Incalculable Emotional Cost 

The demanding nature of nursing, along with the emotional toll of dealing with patients' suffering and loss, can significantly affect nurses' physical and mental health. The constant exposure to traumatic events and the pressure to provide compassionate care can lead to emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue. This strain, in turn, can further cause nurses to develop burnout, compromising patient safety and the ability to deliver high-quality care. 

Nurses witness suffering, pain, and loss on a daily basis, which takes a toll on their mental and emotional well-being. The constant exposure to traumatic events can lead to compassion fatigue, a state of emotional exhaustion, and decreased empathy. Nurses may find it challenging to cope with the emotional demands of their work, leading to burnout over time. 


The Cyclical Nature of Burnout 

Once burnout symptoms begin, they tend to make a difficult situation even worse. Nurses experiencing burnout may feel disillusioned, depersonalized, or apathetic towards patients and their profession.  

If you experience burnout, you may find yourself becoming detached from your patients, viewing them as tasks to be completed rather than individuals in need of care. This depersonalization can further exacerbate feelings of emotional exhaustion and contribute to a negative work environment. 

Cynicism and feelings of professional inadequacy are also prevalent in nurses experiencing burnout. Nurses may question their abilities and feel as though they are not meeting the expectations placed upon them, making them wonder why they are working in healthcare organizations at all.  


The Impact of Nurse Burnout on Healthcare Quality and Patient Safety 

Burnout leads to nurses quitting their jobs or leaving the profession entirely, which really isn’t something healthcare systems can afford right now.  

Alarming research from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) reports the prevalence of nursing burnout. Their recent survey found that between one-fourth to half of the nurses surveyed have frequently reported various feelings of exhaustion.

Specifically, their nursing respondents reported noticing the following symptoms of nurse burnout on a daily or weekly basis:  

  • 50.8% feel emotionally drained 
  • 56.4% feel used up 
  • 49.7% experience fatigue 
  • 45.1% feel burned out 
  •  29.4% feel at the end of their rope 

This data emphasizes the urgency to address this issue and its impact on healthcare systems. 

Nurse burnout goes beyond affecting individual nurses – its repercussions extend to the quality and safety of patient care. Studies have shown a direct correlation between nurse burnout and increased medication errors, patient falls, and hospital-acquired infections. Burnout impairs nurses' cognitive abilities, decision-making skills and interpersonal interactions, hampering their ability to provide optimal care. 


How to Recognize, Address, and Manage Nurse Burnout 

To address this issue, healthcare organizations must prioritize nurse well-being and implement strategies such as workload management, fostering a supportive work environment, and promoting self-care. By addressing these factors, hospitals can create a healthier workplace culture that supports nurses, prevents nurse burnout, and ultimately improves patient care.  

Assuaging nurse burnout will come down to the hospitals, healthcare systems, and employers at the end of the day. But there are some things nurses can do. 

One important aspect of recognizing nurse burnout is understanding its signs and symptoms. Nurses should be aware of the physical and emotional indicators of burnout, such as:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Feelings of cynicism or detachment

By being attuned to these warning signs, nurses can take proactive steps to prevent nurse burnout before it becomes overwhelming and affects their mental health. 


Raising Awareness for Necessary Change 

In addition to personal care and open communication, nurses can also address burnout by advocating for changes in the workplace. This effort can involve raising awareness about the impact of burnout on patient care and outcomes, advocating for policies and practices that prioritize nurse well-being, and providing appropriate staffing. By actively participating in discussions and initiatives aimed at improving working conditions, nurses can contribute to a healthier and more sustainable work environment. 


How Nurses Can Fight Burnout 

Registered nurses can take advantage of professional development opportunities to enhance their skills and knowledge. Continuing education programs, conferences and workshops can provide registered nurses and other nurses with new perspectives and strategies for helping healthcare providers to manage their nurses' burnout. By staying updated on the latest research and best practices in burnout prevention, nurses can better support themselves and other healthcare workers and decrease patient discomfort. 

It is also important for nurses and other healthcare workers to recognize that addressing burnout is an ongoing process. Burnout can be a chronic issue in the healthcare profession, and nurses must remain vigilant in taking care of their well-being. Regular self-assessment, reflection and adjustment of self-care strategies are essential in maintaining resilience and preventing burnout. 

Here are additional strategies and approaches the American Nursing Association (ANA) suggests you develop and use to tackle nurse burnout: 

  • Develop solid relationships inside the workplace and at home. 
  • Establish boundaries between work and personal life. 
  • Get enough sleep to avoid physical exhaustion. 
  • Aim to maintain a regular exercise routine and a well-balanced diet. 
  • Take a break. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help or additional training. 


Strategies Hospitals Are Implementing to Combat Their Nurses' Burnout 

Hospitals are increasingly recognizing the significance of addressing nurse burnout and its impact on patient care. As a result, they are taking important steps to combat nurse burnout.


Prioritizing Personal Care for Nurses Is Trending Up 

One strategy that hospitals are implementing to address nurse burnout is the introduction of self-care programs. These programs are centered on enhancing the physical and mental wellness of nurses. 

These programs also provide resources and support for stress management, compassion fatigue, healthy eating, exercise, and mindfulness. By encouraging registered nurses and other healthcare providers to prioritize their own personal care, hospitals are helping their staff to:

  • Build resilience
  • Avoid physical exhaustion and mental health problems
  • Reduce job dissatisfaction and accidental medical errors
  • Better cope with the demands of their profession and improve quality of care

Allowing Nurses More Say 

Another effective strategy is the implementation of nurse engagement initiatives. These initiatives aim to increase nurses' involvement in decision-making processes and give them a voice in shaping their work environment.  

By empowering nurses and valuing their input, hospitals create a sense of ownership and job satisfaction, which can help prevent burnout. 


Relying on Tech to Streamline Documentation 

Technology also plays a crucial role in mitigating nurse burnout. Electronic health records (EHRs) that streamline documentation processes have significantly reduced the time nurses spend on paperwork. This allows them to spend more time with patients, providing direct care and building meaningful connections.  

Additionally, smart alarm systems have been introduced to minimize unnecessary interruptions and chronic stress, enabling nurses to focus on critical patient needs without being overwhelmed by constant alarms. 


Establishing Mentorship Programs to Enhance Support 

Hospitals are recognizing the importance of mentorship in reducing burnout among nurses and improving their nurses' energy. Mentorship programs pair experienced nurses with new or struggling nurses, providing guidance, support, and a safe space for sharing experiences. This mentorship not only enhances professional development but also fosters a sense of camaraderie and support within the nursing community, reducing feelings of isolation and burnout. 

Hospitals are implementing various innovative strategies to address nurse burnout and improve nurse satisfaction. By prioritizing nurse well-being and providing them with the necessary resources and support, healthcare organizations can create a healthier work environment and ultimately enhance patient care outcomes. 


Changing Policy to Decrease Nurse Burnout 

Recognizing the severity of nurse burnout, policy changes and industry movements are being implemented to address this pervasive issue.  

Nursing associations and regulatory bodies are advocating for safe nurse-to-patient ratios to ensure manageable workloads. Research has shown that when nurses are assigned an excessive number of patients, their ability to provide quality care diminishes, leading to increased stress and burnout. By implementing safe staffing ratios, healthcare organizations can help alleviate the burden on nurses and improve patient care outcomes. 

Across the country, legislation is being introduced to protect registered nurses from mandatory overtime, providing them with the necessary rest and recovery time. Long working hours and lack of breaks have been identified as contributing factors to nurse burnout. By establishing limits on overtime and ensuring that nurses have adequate time off between shifts, healthcare organizations can promote a healthier work-life balance for their nursing staff. 

Collaboration between healthcare organizations, policymakers and nursing professionals is vital for effecting change. By working together, these stakeholders can identify the root causes of nurse burnout and develop comprehensive strategies to address them. This collaboration can involve conducting research studies to better understand the factors contributing to burnout, implementing evidence-based interventions, and providing ongoing support and resources for nurses. 


Tools and Resources to Prevent and Manage Nurse Burnout 

There are numerous online and offline resources available to assist healthcare professionals in preventing or recovering from burnout. Although not present in every healthcare setting, it's recommended that nurses explore options for consulting staff therapists. 

The majority of large healthcare facilities provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) either for free or at an affordable cost. These programs often include therapy and referrals to psychologists, therapists, or psychiatrists specifically aimed at addressing workplace challenges and burnout. 

It's also wise for nurses to engage in discussions with administrators to push for more adaptable schedules, enhanced mental health support and allotted time off for self-care. 

Nurses seeking support for burnout and overall well-being can benefit from an initiative introduced by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). This initiative, known as the Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience, aims to raise awareness about issues like burnout, stress, depression and suicide among healthcare workers. 


Remember: Be Kind to Yourself  

If you are working as a nurse or pursuing education in nursing, recognizing and preparing for nursing burnout is essential. During your nursing career, it's probable that you'll face burnout. However, remember that you possess the necessary tools and various strategies to effectively handle it.  

Being aware of burnout symptoms and effective strategies to counteract it is crucial for your well-being. This knowledge not only enhances your capabilities as a nurse but also guarantees that your patients receive the highest quality of care.  

It's unreasonable to assume that anyone, including ourselves, can endure intense stress continuously without a break. Why should we hold nurses to such an unrealistic standard? The reality is that nurses can deliver compassionate care to patients while honoring their own boundaries and limitations. Remember, prioritizing your well-being is essential, especially if you're providing end-of-life care. 

If you seek a more advanced nursing degree, American Public University (APU) provides a bachelor's or master's degree in nursing. If you already have RN licensure, you can learn more about our RN to MSN programs.  

APU's nursing programs offer multiple degree paths for you to choose from. With the majority of the courses offered online (clinicals require some in-person practicum hours), APU can provide flexibility and convenience to students, which is especially beneficial for working professionals.  

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our program pages and spend time researching which course calls to you.


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