Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a bad day at work. As the backbone of the healthcare system, registered nurses (RNs) have seen some serious stuff. And to put it lightly, they’re tired. Exhausted. D-o-n-e done. Raise your hand if that’s you.
How to Cope with Nurse Burnout
Nurses aren’t just there to treat illnesses or injuries. These caregivers also comfort, educate, and advocate for their patients and their families, in addition to a bunch of other tasks. Plus, most RNs are working long shifts away from their homes, separated from their own friends and families, so not only do they struggle with patient care, but they also deal with feelings of loneliness, homesickness, and nurse burnout.
In case you didn’t know, November 3 is National Stress Awareness Day, so it’s the perfect time to get real about burnout. Nurse burnout, or otherwise known as “compassion fatigue,” is a breakdown in an RN’s physical, mental, and emotional state and it usually occurs as a result of being overwhelmed, overworked, and underappreciated.
But not many nurses feel this way, right? A recent survey showed that a whopping 63 percent of nurses have experienced burnout because of their job. So, what do we do about this? Hot take: We give nurses the chance to care for themselves before they tend to patients. Gasp!
The burnout trifecta
There’s a very specific recipe for burnout and no, it’s not sugar, spice, or anything nice. There are three very specific components to nurse burnout, and they are:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Dissatisfaction in personal achievements
When you add these three pieces together, you would get the perfect trifecta for burnout.
One indicator that you’re approaching compassion fatigue is when you start to feel depleted emotionally and mentally. Oddly enough, stress levels tend to skyrocket when it feels like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Who knew?
“Burnout can occur when you’re not just physically tired, but you are emotionally exhausted,” said Ashley Neuman, LPCC-S. “It’s when you don’t have the motivation to get up, get moving, and finish that one last clinical note. That emotional weight becomes heavier and heavier every day.”
Do you remember what sparked your passion for nursing? When you start to forget your why, or depersonalize, you stop caring, that intrinsic motivation disappears, and you become a shell of yourself. Depersonalization caused by burnout can lead to or increase the loss of job fulfillment and escalate emotional exhaustion to a whole new level.
Compassion fatigue can take your proudest moments and achievements and stomp them in the dirt right in front of you. The monumental accomplishments you would have previously been thrilled to brag about become no biggie and your daily wins are totally obsolete.
General nursing job duties also have a role in nurse burnout. Things like handling the death of patients, comforting grieving family members, collaborating with difficult coworkers, having limited autonomy, and sometimes a language barrier between caregiver and patient are major challenges nurses face. And all of that is just “part of the job.”
As one of the most trusted professions in the U.S., RNs are expected to stay on the top of their nursing game at all times. The only problem with that is nurses are humans with real emotions and valid feelings, so you can see the dilemma.
I don’t know about you, but my mom always told me you can’t do anything in life that doesn’t affect someone else. The same is true for nurse burnout. When RNs feel compassion exhaustion, they may become distracted and forgetful, which can then lead to medical mistakes, pharmaceutical dosage errors, and even increased rates of patient infections. And if things do go haywire, nurses who are burned out have a slower reaction time to urgent cases, which isn’t good for anyone.
Nurses make such a great impact in our lives, they deserve to feel like their best selves every day on the job, and burnout makes that nearly impossible.
You may be burned out if you…
So, how do you know if you’re on track for burnout? Sometimes nurse burnout can sneak up on you with such stealth that you don’t even see it coming. Give yourself time to stop, breathe, and assess your emotions. Ask yourself these questions:
- Have I been irritated constantly for no apparent reason?
- Am I cynical towards my patients and nursing in general?
- Am I disengaged from job-related activities?
- Have I been experiencing a low sense of personal achievement?
- Am I physically, mentally, and/or emotionally exhausted?
- Have I been hard to cooperate with?
- Do I care about my job performance?
Typically, compassion fatigue occurs gradually in phases. First, you’re on top of the world! You have the energy, commitment, and desire to heal patients and to be a successful nurse. You might start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility you take on, but that won’t throw off your groove. This is the stage where you may feel like you have to prove yourself, which results in high productivity levels, high job satisfaction, and sweet, sweet optimism. But, just as Gran always said, “What goes up must come down.”
Next, life slaps you in the face (metaphorically, of course) and you become acutely aware that some days are harder to get through than others. Your feel-good vibes may start to fade as you notice more common stress symptoms like change in appetite, headaches, and fatigue.
The transition from phase two to three takes you from “meh” to constant internal screaming. This change brings intense pressure on a frequent basis and can lead to anger, chronic exhaustion, resentfulness, substance abuse, and even physical illness.
Congratulations! Now you’ve reached burnout. Everyone has their own personal levels of tolerance, so the effects of this stage will look different depending on the person. Some experience chronic headaches and feel empty, while another might neglect their needs and isolate themselves from others. If, by this phase, you haven’t phoned a friend or sought help in some other way, shape, or form, this is the time to do it.
If you exceed burnout and reach habitual burnout, welcome to your new life, and not in the good way. By this point, the ongoing mental, physical, and emotional stress is so embedded in your life, it’s a part of who you are. Say hello to the new you.
Hot tips to avoid nurse burnout
Woof, nurse burnout is a lot to handle. The good news is there are healthy ways to cope that can help avoid or escape from compassion fatigue. Here are some hot tips to get to the light at the end of a very dark tunnel:
- Listen to your mind and body.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the events of the day that you forget to eat lunch or go to the bathroom. Pay close attention to your physical, mental, and emotional needs so you can protect yourself early to avoid becoming ill or burned out.
- Practice mindfulness.
Yeah, I know, I know. This is something you see in every hip magazine or mental health advertisement. And that’s because it works. Mindfulness is like meditation where you focus on what you sense in the here and now. The key is you must do so without interpretation or judgement, and that’s where it gets tricky.
Try some breathing exercises or guided imagery to help relax your mind and body. An exercise you can do anywhere is belly breathing. Don’t worry, it’s easy. While sitting or standing, simply close your eyes, put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale deeply, filling your belly with air (hence the name), and slowly exhale out of your mouth. Pretend you’re blowing out birthday candles on a cake! Practice makes perfect and the more you do, the less stress you’ll hang onto.
- Don’t skip your breaks.
What are you doing, silly? Sure, the days can be long and yes, it may feel like there’s somehow not enough time in the day for all of the things on your list. But, for the love of all that is good in this world, do not skip your breaks.
“Making time for this physical break will help your body feel rejuvenated,” said Tina Gerardi, RN. “And it will give your mind a mental break from the work at hand.”
Those dedicated “you” times are when you can decompress and where you can hydrate, treat yourself to a snack, free yourself from work concerns, and maybe, if you’re lucky, get a moment alone to relax.
- Engage in self-care.
Self-care is the best care and as a nurse, you should certainly be giving yourself the same level of care you offer your patients (because we know it’s a lot). Find a hobby or activity that redirect your attention and distract you from your work-self. Try yoga, hiking, or swimming to naturally release endorphins and boost your mood. Allow yourself to sleep when you’re tired (and not working). Whatever you do, pamper yourself and let loose a little!
- Say, “Thanks, but no” to new commitments.
We know you want to do all the things and change the world, but the thing is you already have too much on your plate from doing all the things and changing the world. If you’re overwhelmed and asked to take on an additional task or responsibility, politely decline. And if they ask why, tell them it’s because Ashley said you need to “get whatever it is you are dealing with under control before you add something else to your plate and overextend yourself.”
- Set boundaries.
Ah, boundaries. These are hard and necessary. Accomplish a work/life balance by knowing your limits. If you have to leave work at 7 P.M. to pick up your kiddo from daycare and you’re not out of there until after 7 P.M., you’re doing it wrong.
“When your shift ends, leave any thoughts, feelings, and grievances about work, at work,” said nurse Tina. “And make a point to focus your time spent at home with family, friends, and doing activities that you enjoy. Be present and mindful.”
- Phone a friend.
Support is so important with burnout. People need people and there is no shame in that! Call a loved one to hear their voice and catch up. Make an appointment with a counselor or therapist if you want a more objective viewpoint from someone who hasn’t known you for a million years. Or text your recruiter for a pick-me-up because you’ve got a friend in us.
- Quit your perm job to travel.
We’re not suggesting you quit your job, ignore all of your adulty duties, travel willy nilly, and live off the land for the rest of your life. But if that’s what you’re into, we love that for you!
If you’re uninterested in option A, go for option B and leave your perm job to become a travel nurse. Life as a travel nurse opens new avenues to opportunities you may have never thought of, like the chance to see sunrises and sunsets from places across the country, or the tax-free stipend you could receive.
Relive that moment when you felt your first “spark” for nursing and get back to doing what you love. Travel nursing gives you the freedom and flexibility you deserve to cope with burnout and accomplish a healthy work/life balance. As a traveler, you can control how you work, where you work, and when you work. Suffer in silence no longer and manage your own work schedule so you can take time off when you need. Plus, as a Fusion Medical Staffing traveler, one of your benefits is exclusive 24/7 phone access to professional counselors and therapists for free. All you have to do to get started is browse nursing jobs and apply.
Nurse burnout is a crisis that’s felt by RNs in every specialty. While compassion fatigue may not be going anywhere anytime soon, more and more techniques are becoming easily available and accessible to help you cope.
Remember why you love nursing in the first place and make the switch to travel nursing with Fusion. Search through thousands of nursing jobs in picture-perfect locations and work with your personal recruiter to get to exactly where you’re meant to be. With a more flexible schedule, you can work like a boss and live like a local without the fear of quickly burning out.