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Nurse burnout symptoms, causes, recovery and prevention resources

Nurse sitting with her hands in her  hands together, looking worried

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Reviewed by Raelene Brooks, Dean, College of Nursing

Nurses are perhaps the most important yet underappreciated group of professionals in modern society. We depend on nurses to do lifesaving work day in and day out, and the work they perform has a profound impact on our lives. This heavy responsibility, combined with fast-paced schedules and long hours, can take a significant toll on nurses’ mental and physical health.  

Nurse burnout can affect anyone affiliated with the profession, from nursing students to seasoned practitioners and everyone in between. Family members and friends of nurses can also feel the impact of burnout as their loved one goes through it. Below, we will explain what nursing burnout is, what it looks like, and how nurses and nursing students can combat its effects. 

Nurse burnout definition

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings about work, and a diminished sense of accomplishment.   

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) considers burnout among healthcare professionals an epidemic. While nearly every type of professional likely will experience burnout at some point, nurses often deal with high-stress tasks and grueling schedules that make them far more likely to experience severe burnout symptoms. 

Symptoms of burnout in nursing students

The phenomenon of nursing burnout is not exclusive to working professionals; the high expectations and fast pace of modern healthcare education cause many nursing students to experience burnout symptoms while in school. Burnout might affect nursing students in the following ways: 

  • Lower test scores 
  • Failure to turn in assignments on time or at all
  • Repeated absences from class
  • Lack of participation in class activities
  • Decreased interaction with peers both in and out of class
  • Inability to focus on projects

This is not an exhaustive list, and some nursing students may experience burnout symptoms that aren’t named here.

Symptoms of burnout in nurses

Burnout often manifests itself differently in professional nurses than in students, which means the specific warning signs are also different. While no list can be exhaustive, here are some of the most common symptoms of burnout in professional nurses:   

  • Cynical attitude toward work  
  • Sense of panic about going to work
  • Lack of empathy for patients 
  • Withdrawal from personal and professional relationships  
  • Decreased work ethic
  • Slower response to workplace requests 

Increased irritability around patients and co-workers

What causes nurse burnout?

While the exact cause of nursing burnout varies from person to person, there are several aspects of the profession that may directly contribute to stress and fatigue. This list is not exhaustive, but below are some of the most common causes of nurse burnout: 

Emotionally draining tasks

One common cause of nursing burnout is the uniquely serious nature of the work that nurses do. Unlike most professions, some nurses must deal with death and high-stakes medical emergencies regularly. Constantly facing crises like these during a standard workday can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout, which is especially common among ICU and critical care nurses.

Long work hours

It’s no secret that nurses in America work long shifts, and due to widespread understaffing, nurses everywhere are being asked to work more total hours with less downtime. Unfortunately, these long shifts take a toll on nurses and the quality of the work they do. Longer shifts for nurses correlate with higher levels of burnout and patient dissatisfaction, according to the NIH.

High job turnover rates and understaffing

Lack of stability in the workplace is another common cause of burnout. High turnover often means extra work for the employees who remain, as the constant need to onboard new personnel takes time and staffing. Additionally, unexpected staff fluctuation can interfere with schedules and work-life balance, as other employees will often need to cover shifts with little or no notice. 

Staff shortages

America is in the midst of a nursing shortage. The American Nurses Association projects that through 2022, there will be more job openings for registered nurses than any other profession. This shortage has led to major staffing issues for hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the country.  

Operating without a full staff means nurses will often have to log more hours and perform extra duties to compensate for the lack of workers. When nurses are constantly asked to go “above and beyond” to make up for understaffing, it can lead to exhaustion and resentment toward work.

Lack of sleep

It’s a clinical fact that not sleeping enough can impair cognitive abilities and contribute to mental health problems, and nurses are among the most sleep-deprived of American workers. About 30% to 70% of nurses report getting less than 6 hours of sleep before their shifts, which are often 12 hours long, according to the NIH. While common, this practice may lead to sleep deprivation, which can contribute to burnout in several ways.

Physically draining tasks

Another common cause of nursing burnout is physical exhaustion from work. In addition to staying alert for 12-hour shifts, some nurses are often asked to administer critical emergency treatments to multiple patients and assist doctors through long surgical procedures. When exhausting tasks are regularly required, it can drain employees of their enthusiasm and lead to mental strain as well as physical tiredness.

Stressful work environment

Hospitals and doctors’ offices are among the most consistently stressful environments for people to work in. Lawsuits are extremely common in the healthcare industry, and nurses face heavy scrutiny over their work from employers and patients and their families, in addition to medical emergencies that need solving. This combination of stressors may lead to nurses feeling underappreciated as well as exhausted.

Risks and side effects of nurse burnout

High levels of nurse burnout can have several negative effects on employees, patients and healthcare institutions. These effects may manifest in different ways, but the overall impact of burnout is always negative for everyone involved. 

Increased risk of depression and other mental health issues

Higher levels of burnout correlate with declined mental health status among healthcare workers, according to the NIH. Mental health problems related to nursing burnout, such as anxiety, are a vicious cycle, as they may put a severe strain on nurses’ personal lives and relationships. Distractions like this make it harder for nurses to focus on work and can lead to productivity declining even further.  

Increased turnover rates

While increased turnover rates may lead to higher burnout levels in employees, widespread burnout among nurses can also create more turnover for healthcare providers, as nurses who feel overworked and underappreciated at work are more likely to quit. A 2019 study from the Journal of Applied Nursing Research found that a higher workload among nurses correlates with an increased desire to leave the profession

Staff shortages

As a growing number of nurses report burnout at work, the perception of nursing as a difficult and stressful job has become more widespread. While more nurses have been quitting their jobs due to burnout, the profession’s reputation has also been dissuading younger people from pursuing nursing degrees altogether. This has resulted in a general lack of qualified nursing labor throughout the country. America’s need for nurses has not decreased at all though, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 194,500 new jobs for registered nurses will open up each year between 2020 and 2030

Lower quality care for patients

Burnout doesn't just impact nurses and their employers. Unsurprisingly, nurses being mentally and physically exhausted at work also creates problems for the patients they treat. Nurses suffering from burnout have a harder time engaging and empathizing with patients, and as a result the level of care may diminish. Institutions with higher recorded levels of nurse burnout typically report lower levels of patient satisfaction, according to the NIH.  

3 ways to prevent nurse burnout

Burnout is always a possibility, even for nurses and nursing students who have never experienced it before. Taking the right proactive steps can help nurses stop burnout from ever setting in.  

1. Enroll in a positive wellness program

Protecting work-life balance is one of the best ways for nurses to avoid burnout, and enrolling in a positive wellness program can assist in the preservation of this balance. Programs like these help remind workers to devote time and energy to their personal care.   

Specific programs may focus on different aspects of self-care, such as nutrition, exercise, or stress reduction. Many programs are flexible and allow employees to choose the optimal wellness strategy for their needs, but the goal of promoting positive behavior and reducing health risks remains the same.

2. Identify the core causes of stress

For many overworked nurses, it can be tempting to ignore the early signs of burnout, often with the hope that they will go away on their own. Unfortunately, stress will usually only get worse unless its root cause is identified, and unaddressed stress from one cause can quickly spread to other aspects of life.  

Many factors can cause both personal and professional stress. Health problems, strained relationships and financial issues are all examples of non-work-related stressors that exacerbate burnout. Identifying the root cause of stress helps nurses properly address their burnout symptoms before they progress.

3. Prioritize authentic leadership

Selfish or incompetent leadership is another very common cause of employee burnout. In workplaces, problems caused by poor leadership (high workload, low morale, lack of job security) often trickle down and make life harder for everyone on staff.     

Authentic leaders know how to motivate but will also set reasonable expectations for co-workers and understand the importance of work-life balance, especially in a high-stress field like nursing. While poor leadership leads to stress and burnout, authentic leaders protect employee health and preserve a sense of trust in the workplace. 

How to manage burnout

In a high-stakes job like nursing, experiencing some degree of burnout is practically inevitable, but several methods can help nurses effectively manage burnout symptoms.

Address it early

Often, nursing burnout symptoms can start small and may not seem like a serious concern, but ignoring burnout usually ensures that it will get worse. It is critical for nurses to be aware of the early symptoms of burnout, like irritability and general tiredness, and to deal with them before symptoms escalate. Address nursing burnout as early as possible to minimize its impact on mental and physical health. 

Create a social support system

Dealing with burnout is already a scary prospect, but trying to handle it alone can make it even more daunting, especially for inexperienced nurses and nursing students. One solution is to create a social support system made up of trusted family members, friends or colleagues to help shoulder the burden.   

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a social support system is typically made up of “the persons, agencies and organizations with which a caregiver has contact.” Help from a social support system may take the form of physical assistance (covering a shift, help with transportation and housework), information sharing, or emotional support (positive encouragement, listening to venting). By leaning on social support systems for information and guidance, stressed-out nurses can address burnout symptoms more effectively.

Consider changing your specialty

For nurses who feel stuck in high-intensity specialties like intensive care or critical care, a change to a less-demanding specialty can improve work-life balance and reduce stress. For anyone considering a switch, a wide range of healthcare and nursing specialties and concentrations is available to choose from:      

Seeking further education can help open up new career options for nurses and allow them to take control of burnout. A lot of information is available, and it's important for anyone interested to thoroughly research each program and decide on the best path for their needs.  

Practice self-care

A common problem associated with nurse burnout is that the overworked employee will habitually neglect their own needs in the name of work. Over time, this may impair work-life balance and erode the employee’s happiness. Reprioritizing to focus on self-care is crucial for anyone experiencing burnout. Several common ways to practice self-care are:

  • Take time off  
  • Set clear work-life boundaries (rather than always taking extra shifts)
  • Prioritize sleep  
  • Prioritize proper hydration
  • Modify diet to include more healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains)   

Self-care may look different for different people, and there’s no universal cure for burnout, but focusing on personal needs is usually a good place to start. By learning to practice steps like these regularly, overworked nurses can combat symptoms like stress and exhaustion while decreasing the likelihood of future burnout. 

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