Tips for preventing nursing burnout

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Have you ever heard a coworker say they are experiencing burnout? Or have you had similar feelings?

Burnout is a type of work-related stress that occurs whenever an individual is both physically and emotionally exhausted, according to the Mayo Clinic. And although it’s not an official diagnosis, feelings of burnout can affect your physical and mental health.

When someone is experiencing burnout, it may feel difficult to complete their everyday tasks. This can lead to feeling a loss of personal identity or a reduced sense of accomplishment.

Some symptoms of burnout at work include becoming irritable or impatient, reduced productivity, difficulty concentrating, change in sleep habits or unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.

What is nursing burnout?

While nursing is a rewarding profession, it can be physically and emotionally demanding at times too. This means nurses are not excluded from experiencing burnout.

When it comes to nursing burnout, the general definition is similar but the outcomes are not the same. Considering nurses are the heart of the U.S. health care system and care for millions of patients every day, it can become a patient safety concern when they are not operating at the top of their license.

When battling nursing burnout, nurses may not be able to provide the same levels of high-quality attention and care to patients as they can when they are happy at work.

According to a JAMA study, 31.5% of nurses who left their current workplace cited burnout as their primary reason for leaving.

A nurse sits on a couch wearing gray scrubs and looking tired, representing struggling from nursing burnout.

Can I prevent nursing burnout?

The good news is that there are ways that you can prevent or combat nursing burnout.

Develop strong relationships with people who you can rely on.

If you have a strong support network at your job, it may make the tough days easier to handle. Having others who can pitch in, support or just lend an understanding and listening ear when your workload becomes too much is important.

“My management and team support my personal emotional status in addition to my work,” Analysia, a nurse at Enhabit Home Health & Hospice, said. “Whenever I have a heavy workload, my coworkers and my direct supervisor are fantastic about checking in with me and making sure I’m okay. They’re there for me to help out, or just if I need to talk or decompress from the day.”

Set boundaries between your work and personal life.

Depending on what nursing environment you work in, you might find yourself taking work home with you, either metaphorically or physically.

You may spend extra time worrying about a patient’s health status long after leaving your job for the day. A helpful way to combat this is by practicing the container exercise.

The container exercise

Imagine a container with a lid- any container of your choosing. If you find that you have stress and worry that you’ve brought home for the day – especially things that you can’t tackle until tomorrow – visualize putting them in that container and closing the lid. Once those worries are put away, it allows you to separate from your work stress and address the items in your container at a time when you feel more calm or capable of doing so.

For home health nurses, it can be easy to rush out of a patient’s home and tell yourself you’ll finish their visit notes later. Sheree, a nurse at Enhabit, suggests that although you may want to get home quicker, this is not a good way to go about your day.

“I tell every nurse that comes in don’t try to get home early and then have work to do later,” she said. “Do everything in your work day. And then when you go home, your charts are done and you don’t have to worry about it. Plus, we see better patient outcomes when nurses are more present and do their documentation in the home.”

Prioritize your sleep.

The average adult needs at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night. This can be hard to do if you are a nurse, and especially if you work the night shift. The main goal is 7-8 hours a night, even if that means splitting up your sleep into shorter naps throughout the day.

Care for your physical and mental health.

Exercise is proven to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Although nursing schedules can make it hard to fit in time to exercise, it’s important to prioritize moving your body intentionally for at least 30 minutes a day.

Enhabit nurse Remmy likes to exercise daily and use meditation whenever things feel too overwhelming.

“Meditation and everyday exercise are good resorts,” Remmy said. “Also, having your coworkers there to lean on is so beneficial to help you through some of those more difficult times that you’re having a hard time processing.”

Enhabit nurse Chelce likes to listen to positive podcasts to uplift her spirits during the day.

“I try to tune out some things when I’m overloaded or when I feel like I’ve got a lot of high-acuity patients,” she said. “Whenever I am driving from house to house, I put on a positive podcast and that just kind of helps me be ready for the next patient. So, I definitely think utilizing a motivating podcast, exercising and spending more time with my family helps me prevent burnout.”

Coping with nursing burnout through resilience

Nursing is an important job and carries a lot of weight and responsibility. That being said, it is important to learn how to navigate challenges that will inevitably come up.

A helpful way to fight off feelings of burnout is to practice resilience. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from a tough situation. Studies show that higher levels of resilience are associated with lower rates of burnout and dissatisfaction with life.

Chelce suggests building resilience through reflection. She often takes the time to reflect on difficult situations individually and with her colleagues. This helps her learn from her experience and use those lessons to navigate future obstacles.

“My team and I sit down and reflect at our weekly case conferences,” she said. “We talk about what happened or how we can prevent something from happening. But we try not to dwell on any problem and instead figure how can we avoid future situations and focus on what can we do.”

The Mayo Clinic offers several more tips to consider when building your resilience. This includes:

  • Get connected with coworkers and resources in your workplace.
  • Make every day meaningful to gain a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
  • Remain hopeful, look toward the future and anticipate change so it isn’t a surprise when it happens.
  • Practice self-care by tending to your own needs and feelings and doing activities that you truly enjoy.
  • Be proactive and don’t ignore your problems or tough situations.

Chelce P., RN

Home health nurse

“You have to go back to the beginning and not lose sight of why you went into nursing. If you can get back to that, it will help get you through the hard times and teach you how to be more resilient.”

Resilience and the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought ample opportunity for resiliency to the health care and nursing field. For Chelce, it was really hard to push through.

“Working as a nurse during the pandemic was scary,” she said. “I could’ve left the field like many did, but instead, I pushed through and remembered moments like these were why I became a nurse.”

Chelce was resilient, navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic by always tying it back to her motivating reasons.

“You have to go back to the beginning and not lose sight of why you went into nursing,” she said. “If you can get back to that, it will help get you through the hard times and teach you how to be more resilient.”

What if I’m already struggling?

It can feel overwhelming if you think you may already be experiencing burnout. While you navigate the difficult emotions of burnout, you can try the following activities to help restore feelings of calm and control:

  • Relax your body via stretching or yoga
  • Pace yourself between stressful activities
  • Maintain hope and know burnout is not permanent
  • Practice positive thinking and gratitude
  • Confide in your friends and family
  • Ask your employer for assistance

If your symptoms of burnout are long-lasting and significantly impacting your daily routine and activities, schedule time to talk to your physician or a mental health professional.

If you are an employer or health care leader wondering how you can help your team navigate or prevent emotions of burnout, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) first-of-its-kind campaign website, Impact Wellbeing.

This campaign was created in October 2023 to “provide hospital leaders with evidence-informed resources to improve workplace policies and practices that reduce burnout, normalize help-seeking and strengthen professional wellbeing.”

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