The same factors that drive many into nursing — the appeal of being a caregiver and connecting with people by helping — can turn into very emotional demands that can lead to nurse burnout.
As early as 2008, a study from researchers at the University of Akron and Ohio Department of Health showed the pressure to cover up feelings of stress helped lead to the emotional exhaustion that increasingly characterizes this demanding profession. Such burnout has prompted as many as 90% of nurses to consider leaving the field.
The first step to avoiding burnout is to know the signs of the physical, mental and emotional weariness that can compound over time.
Most common signs of burnout
Physical fatigue. The University of South Florida noted that one of the earliest signs of nurse burnout is physical exhaustion. Considering more than half of nurses regularly work more than 10 hours in a shift, it’s normal to feel tired leaving work. But nurses should not feel as tired when they wake up as they do when they go to sleep.
Feeling under-appreciated. Everyone has days when they just don't want to go to work. But a constant dread of your shift can contribute to physical and emotional exhaustion. A 2015 study in the journal Annals of Behavioural Medicine found feeling undervalued was more stressful to nurses than the work itself.
Feeling indifferent. No longer feeling fulfilled with the job is often the start of compassion fatigue, or no longer sensing a connection to patients according to the American Nursing Association's Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation initiative. Unchecked, that can lead to poor outcomes and medical errors, which in turn feed the cycle of dread.
Resistance to change. Nursing is a complicated profession, with the need to juggle medical knowledge, human interaction and time management with life-and-death consequences. For nurses already stressed out, the website Nursing.org warns that even small changes can be overwhelming and interfere with professional success.
Becoming sick. Nurses are human, too, and like everyone else, can become physically ill. But anxiety and depression, not to mention simple stress, can manifest into physical symptoms such as gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain and a low immune system, according to an interview with Sarah A. Delgado, a clinical practice specialist with the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
These symptoms may seem broad, and the list is hardly an exhaustive tally of the possible signs of burnout in such a complicated profession. And, as Delgado notes, some nurses are known to dismiss individual burnout signs over a desire to power through.
But recognizing the signs can be the first step toward addressing the stress that accompanies the job and becoming a better nurse. Many jobs offer employee assistance programs for help, and the National Academy of Medicine provides an online list of resources.
Even tending to the basics of better sleep, nutrition and exercise can have a positive impact on burnout. That, in turn, boosts job satisfaction and job performance – not to mention showcases the ethics and care that have made nursing the most honest and ethical profession among Americans for 20 years running.
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