Nursing Burnout Triggers and Coping Strategies

It’s a reality that burnout is high in the nursing profession. Compassion fatigue and just basic physical weariness take their toll. But with the right strategies, those in the nursing profession can cope and thrive.

If you are a nurse and feeling burned out, you are not alone. More than 40% of hospital nurses scored high for burnout and 43.2% were in the upper ranges of emotional exhaustion, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Signs of Nursing Burnout

You start out your nursing career full of vigor and human kindness. That can slowly change when you keep coming up against bureaucracy, understaffing, and your own perfectionism.

Again, you’re not alone. As a byproduct of the demands of the profession, more than 40% of all currently active RNs plan to retire in one to ten years, according to a survey by the Michigan Center for Nursing. Although this opens up the job outlook opportunities, the number of which are planning to retire in the next decade is very concerning.

Nursing burnout often expresses itself first in physical symptoms. If you find yourself constantly feeling sick, fatigued, and out of sorts, it could be in the early stages. Does this describe your life:

  • It is hard just to force yourself out of bed in the morning
  • You dread going to work
  • You have recurring headaches and stomach pain
  • You are suddenly gaining or losing weight unintentionally
  • You can’t sleep, or you wake up already tired

Emotionally, burnout expresses itself with an ongoing mood of blame and not feeling appreciated. You keep telling yourself:

  • Patients don’t realize all that you do and are for them
  • Administrators don’t give you credit for the problems you solve and the errors you catch
  • You are the only one who actually gives a thought to the patient
  • Management just worries about the budget

An unintentional way your body and mind cope are by switching from robust caring and participating in your job to a stance of simply going through the motions. This can help you adapt to the stress, but it can also reduce your self-esteem even more because you know on some level that you are providing below par care to your patients.

This can intensify to the extent that you start getting insensitive to patients. This cynical attitude is the sign of nursing burnout in full bloom.

The Triggers

Blaming burnout on caring too much is oversimplifying a complex state of mental and physical exhaustion. It is a mix of emotional and physical workplace conditions, as well as specific nursing burnout triggers.

Understaffing: A counterproductive method that many hospitals use to cut the budget. The result is physical tiredness and mental overexertion in the nursing staff. “It’s really stressful. You’re taking care of six people when you should take care of four,” points out Dawn Kettinger of the Michigan Nurses Association.

Perfectionism and High Standards: Both, whether placed on by yourself or by the administration of the hospital, are a prime contributor to burnouts.

A Patient’s Death: This is the part of nursing that never gets easier. If it happens when you are well down the road to nursing burnout, the results can be very devastating.

Ways to Cope

When you realize you’re on the track to burnout, the first place to start is with yourself. Accept your limitations, the people you work with, your health care facility, and medicine as a whole. Remember, you are human, caring for and working with other humans within the confines of a health care system that can be challenging at times.

Invest in Emotional Debriefing: Figure out a way to calm down when you are dealing with issues. This sort of emotional debriefing can be:

  • Talking positive affirmation to yourself
  • Meditating or taking yoga classes
  • Connecting with other nurses
  • Connecting with friends outside the profession

Get a Physical: Health care providers are often the ones who seem to put off getting medical help for physical problems. Let the doctor rule out other reasons for the insomnia, headaches, and fatigue. If nothing else, it will help confirm your diagnosis of nursing burnout.

Start Taking Breaks on a Regular Basis: Working tirelessly throughout your shift can result in mistakes in your job. Take a break every now and then and step away to regroup and recharge.

Join a Committee: Though this sounds like the last thing you need, it is important for nurses, the core and heart of patient care, to have a say in staffing levels at medical facilities. Make your voice heard, it can make a difference.

Take a Much Needed Vacation: Nurses often work long days, back to back. When you get time off, make an effort to really get away and do things that you love or that help you to relax.

You entered nursing with a pure heart and a deep compassion. Facing the realities of the profession can be hard, but it is doable and can result in a more resilient, flexible nursing style. Take great care of yourself so you can take great care of your patients.