When someone thinks about nurse burnout the first thing that comes to mind is taking time off and cutting back on work and indulging in self-care. Why that would be ideal - it’s not always possible to just take time off and run long baths. No workplace is stress free and working with patients is bound to have its ups and downs.
In saying that - being in a high-stress environment where you might have to make life saving decisions can sometimes be a lot to handle. Burnout is something that tends to creep up on you - and something that you usually only realize when it’s too late. As a nurse, it’s a good idea to know how to handle burnout - how to try and prevent it and how to spot signs (in yourself) and in others.
Studies suggest that anywhere between 25–65% of nurses experience burnout and that the number is so varied because of the gradual onset of burnout among nurses. Nurse burnout can lead to medical mistakes, depression, high turnover rates, moral distress, and poor job performance/satisfaction. If left untreated it can spiral out of control, so learn how to spot the signs and create your own prevention plan.
It’s no surprise that nurses who work longer shifts are more prone to burnout, it means more time on your feet without breaks and more patients. Working long hours has also been linked to a shortage of staff which means not only are you expected to work long shifts but during those shifts you’ll likely be overworked which leads to exhaustion and making this a routine leads to burnout.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time burnout can be a direct result of not having management or peer support. This means you’re in an unhealthy working environment where there’s either lack of communication or possibly even bullying. Sadly, a big portion of nurses have experienced this type of environment before and if you find yourself in this situation the best thing you can do is move on. If you need the experience, stay for a while but make a plan to leave. Working in a team can save lives and being in an uncooperative or judgemental atmosphere will not only push you to burnout but likely make room for errors.
You may be working with a wonderful team but your specialty is naturally stressful, like intensive care where you’d be dealing with a range of different patients, accidents and situations where quick decisions need to be made. Having this sort of responsibility can add stress to your day-to-day which in the long run can lead to burnout.
Working in an atmosphere where your patients have high mortality rates is another main reason for burnout. It’s hard to deal with death - even when it becomes routine. High mortality rates are also linked to high-stress levels which again isn’t something you want to get used to.
Burnout tends to slowly creep up on you instead of appearing from one day to the next, which is often why it’s hard to pinpoint and realize that you’re burned out. Since it’s a slow build many nurses don’t realize until they’re already in too deep - which is why the best way to tackle nurse burnout is to prevent it.
Without taking the proper measurements to prevent burnout you could be looking at more serious symptoms like depression and self-doubt.
When it comes to nurse burnout the best way to treat it is by preventing it. Since burnout is something that creeps up over time it can also become a habit that’s hard to break, which is why it slowly wears you down.
Here are our top picks (chosen from our networking community) on how to prevent burnout:
If you don’t like high-stress environments that don’t take a job in the ER. Likewise, if you’re going to be bored working nights then think about what type of nursing role is best suited for your lifestyle and/or skills. While this is something you may want to think about when you’re still studying, even if you are a practicing nurse, getting clear on what you like and what you want will help you set strict boundaries for the type of jobs you apply for, as well as the types of teamwork you commit to. Don’t stay in a job that you hate - there are lots of nursing jobs out there.
Figure out your ideal role and then work towards getting it. Once you’re in your ideal job make sure you have a plan to cope with stress (see step 2).
A great way to make sure you prevent nurse burnout is by making a plan to recognize when it’s happening. Since burnout can creep up on us it’s a good idea to develop your own warning signs so you know what to do if you notice you’re being more irritable, always feeling tired, not looking forward to your shifts, etc. Some coping skills include exercising more, journaling, even creating a post-work relaxation routine and most importantly having someone to talk to.
Being able to talk about the emotional stress of your job can go a long way in helping to cope with high-stress situations. You should find someone outside of your work who can listen (it can be another nurse or just a friend), but just the feeling of being supported can help you feel positive and alert when starting your next shift.
If none of these things are appealing you can also talk to a professional who can help you work through stressful times (for a list of professionals you can contact scroll to the end of this article).
Creating a plan to cope with stress when it comes up helps you a). Recognize it and b). Have a plan to deal with it (sweeping things under the rug will result in burnout).
Most nurses will scroll right past this tip because let’s face it - getting enough sleep is obvious! Everyone needs sleep to be at their peak. In saying that, it’s a very important recommendation for nurses as studies show that the benefits of at least 8-hours/day can lead to "heightened alertness, boosted mood, increased energy, better concentration, more stamina, greater motivation, better judgment, and improved learning." When you put it like that - sleep really is a superpower, are you getting enough?
Setting boundaries is easier said than done, for example, do you know what your boundaries are? In order to set boundaries, you need to sit with yourself and figure out what they are. Once you know what they are it’s easier to make sure you’re not crossing them.
As a nurse - you are in demand. You have studied and worked hard to get where you are and you have the right to say no. Be firm and decisive when setting your boundaries - they will be tested throughout your career.
While prevention is key, it’s good to know the signs of burnout in case it creeps up on you. Ignoring these signs can lead to emotional exhaustion and medical mistakes so it’s important to pause the ‘go, go go’ style and take action.
But what you can do if you’ve ignored the symptoms and are just starting to realize you might be burning out? Follow these easy tips to assure you take action:
If you find yourself complaining, lacking empathy, feeling drained, snapping at coworkers/family members, or find yourself taking things personally then you may be suffering from burnout. If this style of behavior isn’t just a one-off ‘bad day’ then it’s time to take action. Refer back to your ‘plan’ of support so you can either take some time off, talk to others, make sure you rest or at least try to schedule/organize something to give yourself a mental break. All these things will help shake your burnout and re-energize yourself.
While just noticing that you're burned out won’t fix it right away it will help you get out of the hole and stop the snowball effect.
When you’re extremely busy or have a lot of things piled up (like paperwork) you may feel stressed and begin to not enjoy your everyday work life. Staying in this pattern will lead to burnout which is why you need to know when you’re losing a sense of satisfaction at work.
When this happens you need to find small joys again to lift yourself out of the endless working loophole. Here are some things you could try:
Don’t let yourself get lost. Once you’ve realized you're burnt out, ask for help. Sometimes you can’t take time off or change roles or schedule breaks. If that’s the case, reach out and ask for help from a professional, your management team or coworkers. If you’re working through the burnout then odds are you’ll just become more burned out down the line so bringing this to your team's attention will help make changes that last.
If you’re experiencing burnout or have before, the following resources may help:
What is nurse burnout? Why does it happen? How do we prevent it? In this episode of FreshRN® Podcast, Kati Kleber talks all about nurse burnout, self-compassion, and things you can do to live your healthiest nurse life.
Here is some great advice on nursing burnout, stress and other nursing issues from RN Mercy Gono.
In a job where you’re expected to work long hours, stay on your feet and think sharp - burnout shouldn’t be something that’s swept under the table. Ultimately it boils down to nurse leaders and teams opening up about burn out and creating plans to help prevent it - get help and not over stress. The stigma of admitting burnout needs to be removed and nurses should be able to speak up when things are getting too much. In high-stress environments working as a team and getting proper support is important both for you, the employer and your patients.
Wellness Together Canada is Canada’s first and only online platform offering immediate, 24/7 mental health and substance abuse support. It is funded entirely by the Government of Canada. CFNU has partnered with Wellness Together Canada to share this resource with health care workers, their families and their patients. The platform offers a stepped care approach, where users choose the level and types of support they are most comfortable with – from a mental health self-assessment, to mindfulness workshops, to live phone, video or text counselling with a mental health professional or crisis responder.
Go to WellnessTogether.ca for free support, available 24/7. You can also access the service anonymously if you prefer. For immediate crisis support, front line workers are encouraged to text FRONTLINE to 741741.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada has developed three crisis response training programs for essential workers: Caring for Yourself, Caring for your Team, and Caring for Others. Registration for these courses will be on a first-come, first-serve basis and will be available at no-cost for essential workers.
Overview of courses
Crisis Response training – Caring for Yourself (2 hours) – Participants will be introduced to the Mental Health Continuum and the Big 4 Coping Strategies, to help learn how to better understand their own mental wellness, notice if they might be moving into unwell areas, use practical actions to help with stress, and know when to reach out to get professional help.
Crisis Response training – Caring for your Team (3 hours) – Participants will be introduced to the Mental Health Continuum, the Big 4 Coping Strategies, and Ad Hoc Incident Review to help learn how to better understand
their own and their team’s mental wellness, notice if they might be moving into unwell areas, use practical actions to help with stress, know when to reach out to get professional help and learn tips to support team members.
Crisis Response Training – Caring for Others (2 hours) – will focus on how to create a safe space to have conversations about mental health and/or substance use problems. This training will prepare participants to have conversations confidently about mental health during a crisis, with their family, friends, communities, and workplaces. Participants will also be taught the skills required to respond to a mental health crisis until professional help arrives.
Ontario Support helplines: