Nurse Burnout: How to Spot It Early and How to Handle It

Let’s be real: Nursing is, and likely always will be, a demanding and stressful profession. Nurses deal with life and death situations all the time. No matter their emotional state or mental well-being, they are asked to offer comfort to those in distress and to assist in treating their illnesses or wounds.

The demands of the job make burnout a frequent occurrence in the profession. Nurse burnout is an unwelcome, but often unavoidable part of the job.

That doesn’t mean it has to ruin a nurse’s life. The effects of burnout can be mitigated if you understand its causes learn how to spot it early.

Longer Hours Mean Faster Burnout

A 2012 study conducted by nurse researchers and educators at the University of Pennsylvania showed that nurse burnout – an unhealthy reduction of energy, ambition and focus as a result of an extremely intense work environment – is directly connected to extended work shifts. In particular, shifts of 12 hours or longer, which are common among nurses, are shown to contribute to accelerated nurse burnout.

The researchers took care not to denigrate the idea of longer shifts. Many nurses and other healthcare providers swear by 12-hour or longer shifts, because they usually provide plenty of opportunities to rest and recharge during the shift.

The Penn study revealed two major results:

  •  Patient satisfaction went down the longer a nursing shift ran.
  •  Nurses working shifts of 10-plus hours were two-and-a-half times more likely to experience burnout and job dissatisfaction.

Longer hours, according to the Penn study, tend to “undermine nurses’ well-being, may result in extensive job turnover and can negatively affect patient care.”

The researchers called for better regulation of nursing hours, as well as action by nursing leaders to encourage the development of a workplace culture that respects days off and vacation time.

Spotting Nurse Burnout

There are several warning signs that you might be starting to feel burned out in your nursing job.

If you experience these or similar symptoms, speak with your supervisor about building in more time off or a more balanced shift that allows for reasonable rest.

  • Physical fatigue – If you notice that your energy level has begun to dip, that you are having trouble waking up in the morning or evening (depending on the timing of your shift), that you are not able to stop yawning or feel tired all the time, fatigue might be setting in. This isn’t to say that you will never feel tired, or even a bit overwhelmed at times. Nursing is a demanding job, physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s hard, rewarding work. But if you are unable to recharge after a good night’s sleep or a day off, chronic fatigue might have set in and it might be time to reconfigure your schedule to allow for more rest away from the clinic or hospital.
  • Diminished focus – If you feel fine, physically, but are having a difficult time staying focused or are more easily distracted than usual, it might be time to give yourself a break. Your mind needs to recharge just like your body does, and constant stress can erode your cognitive powers. Your patients need you at your best, and you want to be able to provide them the best care available. That’s not possible if your mind is not able to function at its highest level, and sometimes you need rest to regain the proper mindset and re-focus.

How to Handle Nurse Burnout

Keep in mind that it is natural to feel less-motivated at times, and sometimes events on the job or in your personal life take an emotional toll. The first rule of dealing with nurse burnout is to give yourself a break – in every sense.

Literal breaks are a must. Get off your feet during your shift. Take some time to do something other than thinking of others. Build breaks into your routine and stick to them.

Guard your days off and vacation time. While it might be tempting to pick up an extra shift here or there for more money, consider whether the payoff is more valuable in the form of currency or an emotional, mental and physical recharge.

The effects of burnout can be cumulative, so don’t expect one short break or a day off to work a miracle. You might still feel tired or stressed out after a day off, but if you absolutely dread going back to work, it might be time to think about why that is.

If nurse burnout becomes overwhelming, but you are not ready to leave the healthcare industry altogether, perhaps a change in specialty might help. Healthcare informatics is a growing field, and nursing researching also offers a change of pace for those who are ready to step away from the day-to-day responsibilities of hospital or clinical nursing.

Other solutions might be found in lifestyle choices. Do you meditate? Exercise? Focus on a healthy diet? Any of these or all of them might help you recharge your emotional batteries and be the best nurse you can be.

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