Nursing Lessons

Don’t Be a Burnout: How to Identify and Cope with Nursing Burnout

Nursing LessonsJune 17, 2016

It should come as no surprise that the burnout rate for certain professions is relatively high. Teachers come to mind. So, too, do nurses. In both cases, it’s often an issue of too many demands and too few resources. Hours can be long, and opportunities to drain your emotional batteries are also common. At worst, burnout results in feeling physically, emotionally and psychologically drained to the point that it’s hard to envision continuing in your job.

Nurses, especially, tend to pursue nursing school, or enroll in an online nursing program, or take the step from RN to BSN, out of a sense of compassion. Nursing can be an exciting career, and nurses tend to be people who like caring for others. They also tend to become involved emotionally, at least to some extent, with their patients. While it may be frustrating for a teacher to work long hours for arguably too-low pay, at least they needn’t deal with the added agony of watching their patients suffer—or even die. For some nurses, especially those working certain specialties such as ICU, NICU, or oncology, this emotional toll can be high.

For nurses, burnout may not happen overnight. It’s usually a gradual process; a sort of death of one’s career through a thousand cuts. Many factors can affect one’s risk of suffering from burnout. What helps is having reasonable schedules, adequate staffing, a supportive supervisor, and a respectful work environment, as well as opportunities for advancement if you want them.

The opposites of these situations contribute to stress—and burnout. Inadequate staffing often leads to overwork. Overwork inevitably leads to sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. Unpredictable scheduling may also contribute to weariness, especially when you are asked to fill in on different shifts. Night shift, especially, takes a physiological toll. The interruption in normal circadian rhythm and problems with sleep deprivation, can be caused by working all night, especially when you’re given little time to adjust.

Not surprisingly, burnout tends to go up as shifts increase in length, too. While three 12-hour shifts per week may sound like the best of all possible schedules, the reality is often somewhat different than people expect. The widespread switch to 12-hour shifts has been linked to an increase in nurse burnout.

Common Signs of Pending Burnout

Burnout affects not only your work, but your life outside the workplace. Recognizing the signs of possible burnout is important, so you can take steps to alleviate the situation.


If you find yourself dreading the very thought of returning to work, there might be a brewing problem. Few people look forward to reporting for duty every single day, but when it become routine, a pattern may be emerging.


Feeling bored on the job on a routine basis is a dangerous sign that you may be approaching burnout. Your work should feel engaging to you, at least on some level. Otherwise, you’re just phoning it in.


If you find your temper growing shorter than usual, you may be approaching burnout. Nursing requires lots of patience and more than a little flexibility. Some frustration is inevitable, given the demanding and occasionally chaotic nature of the workplace, but constant irritation probably signals that something needs to change. 

Flagging Empathy

You started with a soft heart full of compassion for suffering patients. No one can sustain television drama-level involvement and compassion 24/7, but if you find yourself simply not caring anymore, regardless of your patients’ suffering, you may need to step back and ask what’s changed.

Illness/Ailments/Sick leave

When your personal illnesses, ailments and other physical complaints start to mount, it could be a sign that you’re stressed, distressed, or even unhappier than you realize. You may need to reevaluate your job. Perhaps a different specialty, or workplace, would improve your ability to be engaged and satisfied on the job. Calling in sick frequently may be a sort of wake up call that something needs to change.

What to Do?

The first step in dealing with burnout is not to ignore it. Identify it, recognize it, and take steps to deal with it. Things seldom get better on their own. Focus on self-care first and foremost. Discuss your issues with superiors, or at least with trusted colleagues. Consider alternative opportunities. Find balance in your life, including carving out time for relaxation, friends and loved ones. Finally, whatever else you do, take action. On its own, burnout only gets worse.
Tags: Health, Schedule