Seven Strategies to Minimize Nurse Burnout

NursingMarch 14, 2017

Burnout is a concept first identified in the 1970s, and it got its own definition and assessment tool (the Maslach Burnout Inventory) in 1981. But it’s safe to say that burnout was with us long before the first Reagan administration. It’s also a good bet that if it occurs anywhere, it’s certainly endemic to the nursing profession. Although you may just be starting your nursing career, it’s never too soon to think about the specter of burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as a condition characterized by three distinct issues: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduction in perception of personal achievement. The first trait is associated with feelings of being weighed down and emotionally stretched to near the breaking point. It inevitably involves unrelieved stress and may manifest as depression or anxiety. It may comprise significant suffering and may include decreased quality of life, and even psychosomatic complaints.

Depersonalization refers to a condition in which a person withdraws from a situation as a means of psychological protection against further damage. A state of detachment is the result. Reduced perceived personal achievement is a fancy way of saying one experiences feelings of treading water and never making headway. The will to forge ahead is curtailed, and the affected individual experiences reduced workplace productivity, in most instances.

What are the potential consequences of burnout?

At least six work/life areas are suitable for any discussion of burnout: workload, control, reward, social support in the workplace, fairness, and values. Workload is dictated more or less by your workplace. If budgets are too tight, and nurses are too few, the workload may climb dangerously high. Research indicates that nurses working in crowded units are considerably more likely to experience depression, for example than nurses working with fewer patients.

Alarmingly, a recent 15-year Danish study concluded that stressed out female nurses are about twice as likely as their more relaxed peers to experience ischemic heart disease. Even worse, the study population excluded older nurses. Thus, overworked nurses less than 51 years of age were found to be susceptible to this greater level of heart disease risk. Other researchers report that working 10 or more hours per day is also linked to a significantly greater risk of heart disease than among people who only work seven or eight hours a day. Although this study examined workers from all sorts of trades and professions, it raises some important questions about the switch from eight-hour to twelve-hour shifts within the nursing profession.

What are some strategies for preventing—or coping with—burnout?

Ideally, your employer would do well to address the issue head on. Among other proposed strategies, here are seven suggestions that may help:

  1. Teach stress-reduction techniques Examples might include anything from yoga instruction to deep-breathing techniques, to meditation. 
  2. Recognize the need—and provide opportunities for—on-the-job stress relief Examples include setting aside quiet places where nurses know they can go to decompress, discuss concerns in a non-judgmental space, etc.
  3. Implement mentor programs Partnering nurses, so they’ll have someone to vent their feelings with, may be helpful. These sorts of assigned “buddy” programs can also improve engagement and retention. As noted in the introduction, having social support, and feeling one has some control, are two important aspects of avoiding burnout.
  4. Provide rewards and recognition for superior service This is about boosting morale. Many burnt-out workers express frustration with situations in which they feel as if how much—or how little—they do receive little notice or appreciation. Changing that dynamic with a simple recognition program can make a big difference.
  5. Get managers involved Positive feedback can go a long way towards boosting worker engagement. As noted above, simple acts of recognition and positive reinforcement loom large in the minds of many stressed workers. A supportive manager who pays attention and appears to care can help alleviate stress and boost morale.
  6. Continuing education On-the-job training and continuing education opportunities are viewed by most nurses as excellent ways to shore up skills and boost confidence. A nurse who feels better prepared and up-to-date will experience less anxiety about their ability to perform their duties.

Offer counseling and other support services.

Nurses are routinely expected to deal with situations that many “civilians” would consider traumatic. Pain, loss, grief—all of these difficult emotions and more are par for the course for most nurses. Institutions that recognize these emotional tolls, and offer professional counseling to deal with them, may fare better at avoiding nurse burnout than institutions that ignore the need for occasional unburdening.