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What is Nurse Burnout? How to Prevent It

6 min readApril, 25 2024

Nurse burnout is a serious job-related condition that can have major consequences for nurses and their patients. Unfortunately, burnout in nursing is on the rise, making it more important than ever to understand how to manage and prevent this condition. It's important to remember that burnout or compassion fatigue is a result of working conditions — not a failure or a lack of compassion or work ethic on your part. 

What Is Nurse Burnout?

Burnout is caused by unmanaged, chronic workplace stress. It can occur in any job or sector and results in the following symptoms, according to the World Health Organization:

  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Mental distance from the job
  • Cynicism about the job
  • Reduced efficacy in the workplace

It's easy to see why this phenomenon is so common in nursing. Nurses often work long hours performing tasks that are both physically and emotionally demanding. What's more, the work nurses perform can have important and even life-or-death consequences for patients, significantly adding to workplace stress.

What Is the Burnout Rate for Nurses?

How common is burnout in nursing? Very. Results from a 2020 survey indicate that almost two-thirds of nurses (62%) experience burnout. It's especially common among younger nurses, with 69% of nurses under 25 reporting burnout. This issue affects all hospitals and health care systems in the U.S.

What Leads to Burnout in Nurses?

There are many causes of nurse burnout. Some causes are inherent to the job: providing compassionate care, working long hours, changing shift schedules, and being on your feet for hours at a time can all place serious demands on nurses. Other causes of nurse burnout derive from systemic challenges facing the health care system. For instance, aging baby boomers and the pandemic have increased the demand for nursing professionals. A shortage of nurses has, in turn, led to more or longer shifts and placed greater demands on individual nurses during each shift.

The pandemic has increased stress on nurses in other ways, too. Witnessing patient deaths — and being asked to provide moral and emotional support for those who die without their families nearby — is an emotional burden that often falls on nurses. And coping with the day-to-day reality of the pandemic while hearing skepticism about its existence from outside people can be disheartening to those on the front lines of health care.

What is Moral Injury?

Burnout can also be caused by moral injury - which is a psychological wound that happens when a person feels they must take actions, or witness actions, that violate their deeply held moral beliefs. The term also describes the challenges of knowing what kind of care your patients need but being unable to provide that care due to factors beyond your control. The pandemic has also led to an increased amount of repeated moral injury, which is contributing to burnout in nurses.

Nurse Burnout Prevention and Management

A nurse in blue scrubs and a face shield looks contemplatively out a window with a cityscape in the background, reflecting on the challenges faced during a healthcare crisis.

Fortunately, despite the serious consequences of nurse burnout, it's possible to manage this condition by paying attention to your mental and physical well-being. The best way to manage nurse burnout is through prevention. Learning to identify the early warning signs is the first step toward avoiding a problem that puts you and your patients at risk.

Signs of Nurse Burnout

Early warning signs to be aware of include the following:

  • You feel constantly overworked
  • You regularly feel too tired to go to work
  • You don't look forward to your job
  • You feel unappreciated or like your work doesn't matter

While these are some of the most common warning signs, you may have other nurse burnout symptoms like trouble sleeping, tension in the body, or even feelings of depression.

How to Prevent Nurse Burnout

If you notice any of the early warning signs of nurse burnout, a few strategies can help you resolve it before it becomes a more serious problem. If you're already suffering burnout, these strategies can help you alleviate your symptoms and get back to enjoying your job and providing the best patient care possible:

  • Rest: Getting enough sleep between shifts is crucial for nurses. If your current schedule won't allow you to get enough sleep, talk to your supervisor or whoever plans the shift schedule. Nurse burnout and patient safety go hand in hand, so it's important to be clear with your co-workers when you're experiencing burnout. Find night shift nursing tips, including ways to fit rest and sleep into your schedule.
  • Ask for help: Emotional support can help with the stress of workplace demands and the mental load of patient care. Make sure you have a sound support system at work, like co-workers to who you can vent your feelings, and consider contacting a therapist before your burnout becomes hard to manage.
  • Get exercise: Physical activity has proven stress-alleviating effects. And improving your strength and cardiovascular fitness can make the physical demands of nursing less strenuous.
  • Eat well: Make sure you're getting enough to eat before and during shifts and that the food is healthy. It's easy to get caught up in patient care and skip meals or eat junk food to save time. Taking time to buy or prepare nutritious meals at home and at work can help you stay focused and perform at your best.
  • Take a break: Periodically disconnecting from work is important. It gives you a chance to unwind, relax, and recharge your physical and emotional reserves. Despite that, 55% of Americans don't use all of their paid vacation time. Don't be one of them. If the idea of taking time for yourself makes you feel guilty for leaving work or patients behind, remember that avoiding burnout will help you perform better when you are at work.
  • Request training: Speak with your supervisors about training that can help you better cope with the demands of the job.

Mindfulness techniques and moral resilience — "the courage and confidence to confront distressful and uncertain situations by following and trusting values and beliefs" — will help you keep a healthy perspective on your work. These techniques can prevent or manage burnout by reminding you of what's out of your control and making it easier to maintain a sense of self-worth in the face of challenges or discouragement.

Avoiding Burnout Begins With Awareness

Burnout is a serious issue among nursing professionals. Fortunately, there are plenty of warning signs that individuals can spot in themselves and their colleagues. If you suspect that you or a fellow nurse are experiencing burnout, communicate with your manager so that changes can be made to your work schedule and situation before there’s a serious problem.

Visit our Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ site to find more wellness tips and resources.


Images sourced from Getty Images

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