Nurses need to be prepared for every eventuality in patient care: they welcome life into the world, and hold patients’ hands as their lives come to an end. The core job duties are physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing — and sometimes dangerous — so it’s no surprise that nurses experience burnout at an alarming rate.
In fact, the National Nursing Engagement Report for 2019 found that 15.6% of all nurses were feeling burned out at the time of reporting, with 41% of nurses who reported themselves as feeling unengaged also reporting feeling burned out. But many nurses also know they can’t leave — or even take time off — because the nursing shortage is so critical that every hour counts.
We’ve written before about how to combat nurse burnout, but it’s just as important to recognize the dangerous signs of burnout when it starts.
What Are the Signs of Burnout?
Between the long hours, the demands of the job, and just being human, most nurses will experience either the signs of burnout or full Burnout Syndrome (BOS) at some point during their careers. As the National Nursing Engagement Report showed, even fully-engaged nurses report these symptoms. The first step to combating BOS is to recognize the symptoms.
Perhaps the first sign and highest predictor of burnout is emotional exhaustion. Nurses know what it’s like to be tired, but emotional exhaustion leaves you feeling completely drained as a result of the stress of your job. In addition to feeling fatigued in every way, people who are emotionally exhausted often feel like they’ve lost control of their lives — they often report feeling trapped in their situation, whether it’s at work or in an outside relationship.
Another sign of burnout is depersonalization. When you become so exhausted that you have to detach from your surroundings to survive, then you are burnt out. Your outlook may be negative or even calloused, and it can express itself in unprofessional comments directed at colleagues, feeling nothing when a patient dies, or even blaming patients for their problems.
The final major predictor of burnout is a reduced feeling of personal accomplishment. You may not feel that you’re a good nurse or that you make any difference at all in patients’ lives. Nurses working in high-intensity settings, like the ICU or emergency room, may experience this more often as they receive a greater proportion of cases where little can be done for the patient.
Why Burnout is Dangerous for Nurses and Patients
Burnout is more than having a bad day; it’s an impaired outlook on nursing and life in general. Experiencing burnout doesn’t mean you don’t love your job, nor does it mean that you aren’t good at what you do. In fact, this reality makes it even more difficult for nurses who experience burnout because leaving is just another impossible choice.
At the same time, burnout is as dangerous for nurses as it is for their patients. A nurse in the throes of BOS is both less likely to have life satisfaction and more likely to provide a poorer standard of patient care. In a study published in Research in Nursing & Health, researchers explored the correlation between the quality of care and nurse burnout among 53,846 nurses from six countries. They found a strong correlation between higher levels of burnout and nurse-rated quality of care.
In other words, burnout can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Burnout can result in lower standards of patient care, which further informs the reduced feelings of personal accomplishment. As nurses make mistakes, they feel even lower job satisfaction and an even greater intensity of burnout, which goes around again to manifest itself once again in patient care.
How Nurses and Nursing Leaders Can Combat Burnout
Nurses are caught between a rock and a hard place — the nature of the job is stressful, but if you love what you do, you can’t quit. Although almost all nurses will go through burnout at some point, there are things that both practitioners and health care organizations can do to stave it off and help re-engage burned-out nurses.
Education is one of the critical ways that nurses can empower themselves and avoid burnout. Pursuing further education can renew your passion for what you do and help you overcome roadblocks. It also puts you in a better position to provide the latest evidence-based care to patients, which correlates to better patient outcomes and increased job satisfaction.
Nursing leaders and administrators also have a strategic role to play, as the environment in which nurses practice needs to be a supportive one. Creating a positive work environment that limits unnecessary stress and allows nurses to care for themselves and recharge can do wonders in both reducing burnout and igniting engagement.
Those same leaders and administrators can also take notes from other industries’ workplace safety practices. You can’t just say you have a safety culture, you need to commit to it by formalizing the ways in which you intend to create and maintain the culture and creating avenues to accept employee input.
There’s Always More Work to Do to Prevent Burnout
Nurses can’t get rid of the high-stress, high-stakes environments they work in. They can’t wave a magic wand and save every patient no matter how severe their condition, and they can’t stop feeling to cope.
In other words, burnout is a given part of being a nurse. While these feelings are normal, nurses also need support in preventing the bad (and downright dangerous) days from outweighing the good ones. Nurses and administrators can and must work together to prevent burnout — and while the challenge is a significant one, it is achievable if we all listen to each other.