It’s often said that nursing is the heart of healthcare. In a survey conducted by the Michigan Center for Nursing, 42% of all RNs said they plan to quit the profession within the next 10 years. The reason, for many of them, is burnout, feeling too emotionally and physically exhausted to continue to provide care as well as they should. That risk is real, albeit avoidable. People become nurses for a variety of reasons, but they remain nurses by taking care of themselves and fighting the causes of burnout.
Nursing can be an emotionally taxing profession. All patients need more than just physical care: They—and their families—need holistic attention, especially if they’re scared, hurting, or in grief. It’s one of the reasons nursing can be such a fulfilling career. Every time you put on your scrubs you aren’t just completing a task; you’re changing lives.
That said, the emotional and psychological requirements of nursing can prove taxing. If you only give and give and give to others, you’ll eventually feel depleted, and you’ll burnout. A simple but powerful way to fight this is by prioritizing your own mental health. You have a job where you’re paid to care for others, and you likely have a life with further interpersonal demands, so in the middle of it all, take care of yourself, your emotions, and your psychological wellbeing.
When you read about nursing burnout, you’ll see two words repeated a lot: Compassion fatigue. Because patients require so much emotional and psychological attention, nurses can burnout by running out of empathy. They regularly see people, including children, sick and hurting; they encounter a lot of anger and grief; and sometimes they watch their patients die. Loss is an inevitable part of nursing, and it’s no less traumatizing just because it’s your job.
When you experience painful and sad events, when a patient you felt close to dies, you need to process everything. Ideally your hospital or place of work will have counselors to debrief these traumatic experiences; if not, you should at least talk with a fellow nurse, or a counselor outside of work. Tackling these emotionally difficult times will never be easy, but it’s healthier than bottling everything up—and it will keep you from burning out as a nurse.
Nursing burnout has always been a challenge of the profession, even more so with the COVID-19 pandemic. On every 12-hour shift, you have a lot of patients to care for, and a lot of additional duties to complete. Sometimes, it’ll feel like you just don’t have enough time to do everything, and that can leave you feeling overwhelmed, even after work. Whenever that’s the case, you’re at risk of eventual burnout.
However many tasks you have at work, remember: You don’t have to do those things when you leave. Your regular life has other responsibilities, so draw distinctions to balance your work and life, and separate them. That way, if you often feel overwhelmed while you’re caring for patients, you can talk with your manager and find a way, together, to address the issue. Likewise, if you experience stress when you’re at home, you can and should fix it by reducing your daily life responsibilities.
If your work as a nurse and parent/child/friend are too intertwined, you may feel constant stress, and you’re likelier to burnout, so keep them apart.
We say it a lot at our nursing school campus in Draper, Utah: Be healthy.
Some nursing students forget that everything they’re learning about nutrition, sleep, and exercise applies to them too. Because so many patients and families will depend on them, it might be fair to say that healthy lifestyle decisions apply especially to nurses. Sleeping enough, eating well, and exercising regularly will increase your strength and alertness, which will combat physical and emotional exhaustion—which contribute to burnout. Whatever nursing specialty you’re in, follow the lifestyle advice you recommend to your patients.
Sometimes, you can do everything right, taking care of yourself, processing grief, and maintaining a work/life balance, and yet still feel burned out as a nurse. If so, you should take a critical look at where you work, and see if the administration is supporting you and your needs enough. Toxic workplaces exist in every profession, and they’re particularly deleterious in nursing, where you already deal with demanding and difficult patients. If it’s your hospital, clinic, or company that is causing burnout, try to address it. If you can’t, find another nursing job.
Good nurses will always be in demand, so whenever you apply for a job, talk to the managers, staff, and other nurses. Ask yourself if it seems positive and supportive. Is it a place where you would feel healthy? You can be the best nurse and take care of yourself well, but you still need to work in a functional and positive environment.