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Avoid nurse burnout: 8 ways to handle the hard emotions of being a nurse

The College of St. Scholastica By  The College of St. Scholastica  |  @StScholastica  | 

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Nursing is an incredible profession. Nurses are credited with being some of the most ethical and trusted professionals by the American public. They spend their workdays using nursing science to care for the sick, injured and frightened, and they seem to have a special knack for healing not only bodies, but minds and hearts as well.

This career path tends to attract the naturally empathetic and compassionate, but these beautiful and vital qualities can leave many of these professionals susceptible to "nurse burnout" — a term used to encompass the physical, mental and emotional fatigue nurses can experience after hardships on the job.  

"Over the past two years, I have had more of our nursing staff report to me their stress levels are higher than they've ever been," says Carol Rickard, LCSW, TTS and author of Stretched Not Broken: A Caregiver's Toolbox for Reducing and Managing Stress.  

But don't let this frighten you away from pursuing your dream to become a nurse! There are a handful of ways you can work toward preventing nurse burnout as you journey through your career. Read on to learn more about burnout in nursing and what can be done about it.

Why burnout in nursing needs to be addressed

"I believe nurses are the most vulnerable of healthcare providers when it comes to burnout because they can get caught in the middle between administrative policies and delivering good patient care," Rickard says. "In their effort of trying to balance these two areas, self-care gets lost along the way."  

The negative effects of nurse burnout span further than the caregivers themselves. And when stress runs high, increased attrition rates are likely to follow. Turnover in nursing is not only a problem for the nurses, but the whole healthcare system — patients included.  

Even beyond the health and happiness of nurses, burnout hits the healthcare system at a level no one can ignore — the bottom line. "The cost of turnover can have a profound impact on the already diminishing hospital margin and needs to be managed," according to an NSI Nursing Solutions report. "The average cost of turnover for a bedside RN ranges from $37,700 to $58,400, resulting in the average hospital losing $5.2M - $8.1M."  

No matter which way you slice it, nurse burnout is bad news for everyone. But the good news is, you can take steps to prevent it.

8 practical tips for preventing nurse burnout

Being aware of the problem is the first step. Acknowledging that it exists means you can be proactive in your profession to avoid falling victim to nurse burnout. There are also things you can do after you start feeling the effects. Start with this list of advice from seasoned nurses:

1. Figure out what area of nursing you are passionate about

This is a unique profession in that there are numerous different specialties within the larger umbrella of nursing. One of the smartest first steps nursing hopefuls can take is to identify which area of nursing you're most passionate about and do everything you can to land a position in that area.

Whether working in pediatrics, surgery, schools or long-term care is your thing, you will be much more satisfied with your job if you are passionate about what area of healthcare you are working in.

2. Search for workplaces with lower nurse-to-patient ratios

Another early step you can take to avoid burnout as a nurse is to choose your workplace carefully. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) linked hospital nurse staffing to nurse burnout and job dissatisfaction in their research on the topic of high nurse turnover. "Nurses in hospitals with the highest patient-to-nurse ratios are more than twice as likely to experience job-related burnout and almost twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs compared with nurses in the hospitals with the lowest ratios," JAMA reported.  

The more patients nurses are expected to care for in a given shift, the less time they have per patient. This can make the usually empathetic task of caring for patients feel more robotic, stressful and incomplete.  

When you begin your job search, look for institutions in your area that offer lower nurse-to-patient ratios. With any luck, you'll avoid one of the greatest causes of burnout before you even hit the floor for your first shift.

3. Find a nursing network

Having a network of people to support you is always a smart move. But for nurses, it's especially important to have contacts in the field for support. While family members and friends can provide invaluable insight and sympathy, nothing can quite compare to the solidarity of exchanging notes, frustrations and victories with other nurses.  

"I wish I understood that having a network of professional support, outside of my job, is not an option," says Amelia Roberts, BSN RN and founder of The Business of Nursing. Nurses deal with some pretty specific stressors on the job. Dealing with patient death and difficult diagnoses are part of the job description.  

That's why other nurses who are familiar with your struggles can be a huge source of comfort and relief. Even on the good days, a solid nursing network can make all the difference in your career aspirations and growth. Don't miss out on it!

4. Prioritize your nutrition daily

The old adage of 'doctor heal thyself' can easily apply to nurses. Even though nurses tend to understand health better than the average person, chaotic schedules, long shifts and bad habits carried over from nursing school can lead to putting personal health on the back burner. But this can be overcome with a little determination and preparation, according to Roberts.  

She insists on taking the time to plan out healthy meals and snacks ahead of time. Nursing is a demanding profession that requires healthy fuel for the body! An occasional nutritional cleanse can also be very helpful in managing stress, Roberts adds, suggesting that nurses give their bodies a break from low-quality foods when burnout symptoms arise.

5. Practice 'brain dumping'

Rickard recalls a time in her nursing career when she would let the mental strain of her workday seep into her home life upon ending her shift. To overcome the issue, she developed a process she calls 'brain dumping.'  

"It involves setting a timer right upon getting home and just writing about the day," she explains. "When the timer goes off, you destroy what you've written without reading it!"   Rickard emphasizes that reading over what you've written will load it right back into your mind. But if you destroy the writing, you dump it out of your thoughts. "This helps me keep work out of my home life," she explains.

6. Take some time for yourself

Not everyone has the means to go on a tropical getaway when they're feeling the pressure at work. But even setting aside some personal time to do something you enjoy can be very rejuvenating, according to Roberts.  

This could include visiting an indoor garden, getting a massage or manicure, participating in a guided meditation session or attending a relaxing yoga class. Anything that allows you to spend some quality alone time can help you recharge your batteries and come back feeling stronger than ever.

7. Engage in an unrelated hobby

"Nurses have so many natural talents," Roberts says. "They usually pick nursing because they are multitalented and multi-passionate. Take time to explore those passions."  

Keeping up with a hobby that activates a whole different part of you than nursing can really help you cope if burnout threatens. Think writing, cooking, photography, woodworking, dancing, bird-watching — anything you can do to challenge your brain in different ways and provide some much-needed entertainment will benefit you in the long-run.  

8. Take two minutes  

If you are familiar with the feeling of escalating stress, you know how it can mess with your rationale. "Think of a bottle of soda," Rickard says. "If you shake a bottle, the pressure builds up inside. I believe the same thing happens to us."  

As a solution, Rickard recommends the same kind of thing you would do with an over-pressured bottle of soda, a quick pause and a quick release. "Step 1: Stop the pressure from building by doing something calming for 60 seconds. Step 2: Release what's there by doing something active for 60 seconds," she outlines.

Take care of yourself

Nurses are naturally wired to put patients first, but ignoring self-care can actually interfere with your ability to care for others. "I think it is important for students to understand self-care is self-preservation," Rickard says. "It is very valuable for students to start practicing self-care while they are still in school. I wish I'd known then what I know now!"  

So heed the advice of our nursing experts and don't wait! The key to avoiding nurse burnout starts wherever you are right now. With healthy habits firmly in place, you will be ready to become the kind of nurse you most want to be. That motivation can be a powerful source of willpower.  

Check out what else tops the list of nursing students' greatest motivations in our article, "Why do you want to be a nurse? Students share their sentiments."

The College of St. Scholastica


The College of St. Scholastica is an independent private Catholic Benedictine college with locations across Minnesota, in addition to many high-quality programs available online and through convenient evening and weekend formats. Since 1912, St. Scholastica has been preparing students for a life of purpose and economic gain by engaging students in the love of learning and active citizenship in the world. Our mission is to provide intellectual and moral preparation for responsible living and meaningful work. 

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