Working as a nurse can be tough. Because they are so focused on patients, they may not see when they’re experiencing burnout—and that can lead to problems with themselves or with being able to properly care for patients.

But there are ways to recognize it and to counteract it. Sarah A. Delgado, MSN, RN, ACNP, a Clinical Practice Specialist with the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses says that there are ways to identify burnout as well as ways of coping with it.

What are some tips for nurses so that they can prevent burnout?

 The first step with burnout is to recognize when it’s happening. Some signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling that you have to drag yourself to work, and that tasks at work take more energy than you can muster
  • Feeling irritable, critical, or cynical with coworkers
  • Having physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach pains or trouble sleeping

Nurses may try to dismiss these symptoms, especially in the busyness of the holidays, because they feel compelled to power through, no matter what. The truth is that recognizing and addressing burnout can actually be energizing; just realizing that you deserve to feel better is the first step toward positive change.

Coworkers can help each other call attention to burnout. If you notice someone is struggling, it may be worthwhile to check in and ask how they are doing. Burnout can be a team problem if it is pervasive on a unit because it’s hard to come to work when the people you work with are dissatisfied, short tempered, or unable to sense the value of their work. So recognizing the symptoms and checking in with colleagues is an essential strategy.

Burnout is a complex phenomenon and while there are self-care actions that nurses can take to address it, factors in the work environment contribute to burnout. Worry that patient care is compromised by an inadequate staffing mix, feeling that administrators are not responsive to clinical issues, and poor communication among health care team members are examples of issues in the work environment that can led to the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of burnout.

Issues in the work environment are not insurmountable but a single member of the environment cannot address all of these issues alone. If you are a nurse working in an unhealthy work environment that contributes to burnout, maybe create a New Year’s resolution to talk to your colleagues about it. If you find that they share your feelings, there may be factors beyond your control contributing to the problem.

Consider forming a group and seeking support from management to identify specific steps toward a healthy work environment. The American Association for Critical Care Nurses has resources including the AACN Standards for Establishing and Sustaining Healthy Work Environments and an online assessment tool that units can use to evaluate their environment and identify ways to make it healthier.

What are the best action steps they can to take?

There is some evidence that mediation and mindfulness practices can significantly reduce anxiety and worry. There are resources online and applications to help learn these techniques. The National Academy of Medicine provides a list of resources.

Attending to the basics—sleep, exercise, and nutrition—also helps with the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion of burnout. Sometimes, it is easier to advise others on self-care than to take the time to do it for ourselves. The American Nurses Association initiative Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation provides a structure for nurses to think about their own self-care and develop healthy habits.

When you find yourself feeling relaxed and rested, think back to what you were doing at that time. Were you talking to a friend, exercising, drawing, spending time with family, reading a novel, or watching a movie? Being deliberate in engaging in the activities that bring joy can reduce the stress of burnout.

What kind of self-care should they do?

I think a key antidote to burnout is satisfaction in your work. There are some shifts that are so frustrating and so exhausting! Then there are also moments when you comfort a frightened family member, catch a change in a patient’s condition, or hear “thank you” from a colleague—moments when you know your actions have a positive impact on someone else. Those moments are priceless. Keep a log or a journal by your bed or create a note in your phone with a list of your priceless moments as a nurse, and take time to re-visit them from time to time. The way you felt in those moments is as real and as powerful as the negative emotions.

What else do they need to be aware of?

Leaders and organizations in health care are increasingly taking action on the issue of burnout. As mentioned, the ANA launched the Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation project. The Critical Care Societies Collaborative, a collection of four professional organizations, also identified burnout as a priority issue. Information and videos from their summit on this topic can be found here. Finally, the National Academy of Medicine created an online resource, the Clinician Well-Being Knowledge Hub, that offers individual and system level strategies to combat burnout. I think this website can be validating; it is important to recognize that you are not alone in feeling burnout as a member of the health care workforce.

Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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