Ten Signs You Have Nurse Burnout and What to Do About it

Are you emotionally exhausted at work and finding difficulty understanding why? Are you cynical about your role as a nurse? Are you wondering if nursing is even right for you, even though you used to love the job?

Well, you might be experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout. This condition is normal. But you need to start acknowledging and working through it.

Common consequences of nurse burnout are depression and anxiety, and leaving the nursing profession all together. In addition, several studies have found associations between patient safety hazards and healthcare worker burnout.

Therefore, it is so important that you make yourself a priority, and start working through this issue.

You probably became a nurse (in part) to help people, and chances are that this desire stemmed from your natural empathetic tendencies. You are understanding and sensitive of others’ emotions. You can go there with your patients when they are experiencing grief or pain.

Empathy is a powerful piece of the nursing practice.

But avoiding or overcoming nurse burnout requires establishing boundaries with yourself and your employer. Because our country is experiencing a nursing shortage, we are often overworked and, thus, unsatisfied with our jobs. In fact, RN Network (2017) estimated that one-half of nurses in our nation have considered leaving the profession.

Without your own sense of boundaries, your empathy for your patients, your co-workers, your workplace, and your family can get the best of you. You risk losing yourself in others’ emotions, forgetting to meet your own needs until you are physically or mentally at a breaking point. For others, you may be coping by blocking yourself off from your patients entirely. However, if you’re a bedside nurse, you need to be able to empathize with your patients. Otherwise, you become cynical about your work, doing yourself and your patient a disservice.

Basically, you want empathy to aid your nursing profession, not break you down as a person.

So, let’s find some solutions before you get to this point.

But first, here are ten signs that you are out of balance and at risk for compassion fatigue or burnout:

Nurse Burnout Image

[Note: I am not an RN researcher, I am a bedside nurse. Therefore, these signs are things that I and my co-workers have experienced firsthand. They are not based on studies related to nurse burnout. In addition, this post is information-based only, I am not a healthcare provider.]

  • You dread going to work, a job you used to take pleasure in
  • You get little satisfaction out of your work
  • You obsess about your workday when you’re home
  • Your physical health is suffering
    • Frequent colds
    • Back, neck, shoulder aches from improper lifting
    • Insomnia/fatigue due to long, rotating shifts
  • Your mental health is suffering
    • Old grief coming up
    • Depression/anxiety symptoms
    • Apathy
    • Poor self-image (including how you feel about yourself as a nurse)
  • You are making more mistakes at work
  • You call out of work frequently even though you’re not really “sick”
  • You search the job boards often
  • You don’t spend your time off of work meaningfully (i.e. Netflix all day, everyday)
  • You are self-medicating with drugs or alcohol

Before I go any further, I want to remind you that if you are experiencing any of these signs: you are not a bad nurse. Nurse burnout is so common–because nursing is hard work. In addition, workplaces don’t always have the best systems in place to help you with it.

And newer nurses, you are very much at risk for burnout. This is because, in addition to the role being stressful for nurses anyway, newer nurses have to deal with the difficult transition of role–from graduate to nurse. There is a lot of learning and growing that needs to take place. This means that training is critical, but it isn’t always available at your job. That is scary. One way to avoid nurse burnout is by asking employers what training they offer when you start.

Coping with nurse burnout may take a combination of different mechanisms.

Here are some tips that helped me work through my own burnout.

Talk It Out

Whether it was that code blue, the recent death of a patient you became close to, the family member who came at you angrily, or just the daily grind of being of service—you need to debrief.

We do not do this enough as nurses!

Sometimes an informal setting, like getting a beer with your co-workers after a long weekend, is helpful to recharge (just be mindful that HIPAA is always watching). This is better for more general debriefing. In addition, I suggest you talk to:

  • Nursing school friends
    • They are likely going through something similar
  • Your nurse “moms”
    • The mentors on your unit. They have seen the worst and are still sticking through it

But, if your health is really suffering, and you need to discuss a specific incident, I suggest you talk to a professional in a private setting. Talk to:

  • Your supervisors
    • They likely have worked on the floor before, so they can often relate to what you are going through.
    • They are spending so much money on you, so it should be their priority to help you address your burnout.
    • It’s also safer to talk to them about specific patients (as long as these conversations are happening in appropriate settings) without violating HIPAA.
  • A therapist
    • They will addressing pressing mental health concerns.
    • They can assess your self-medicating
    • They can help isolate a specific issue related to burnout and assist you in overcoming them.
  • Your healthcare provider
    • Sometimes working in healthcare can make you a hypochondriac. But it’s good to make sure you’re suffering from burnout and not something more serious.

Just refrain from dumping all of your problems on your non-nursing friends, partner, and family. They often can’t completely relate, so their advice might not be what you need. In addition, you can become unhealthy patterns within your relationship if you’re always bringing your specific nursing-related issues to them.

Here’s an example from my own life. 

I was in my first year of nursing, working in a hospital and finishing up my BSN. Soon, I found myself experiencing depression/anxiety symptoms. I tried to keep my work and home life separate, but I found that I was really isolating myself from others. In addition, when people asked about my job, I would talk about it cynically and sarcastically. Eventually, I decided to see a therapist. I immediately burst into tears upon seeing her, and explained what was going on.

“Above all,” she said, determining one main problem related to my burnout, “You’re tired.”

I then knew where to devote more of my energy.

Create a Mindful Practice

I know this sounds super trendy and canned, but preliminary evidence suggests that mindfulness-based practices can help with nurse burnout.

GoodTherapy loosely defines mindfulness as increasing your awareness about your physical and mental self without inserting judgment.

While there are few studies observing mindfulness and nurse burnout, I suspect the preliminary work showed improvement because mindfulness requires self-reflection and observation about the present self. By cultivating a mindfulness routine, you are frequently checking-in and making yourself a priority.

What does a mindfulness routine look like? For everyone, it’s a little different. Some are bigger, while others are smaller. Here are some ideas that I have either used myself or heard from co-workers:

  • Physical exercise
  • Yoga and meditation
  • Journaling
  • Religious practices
  • Taking a walk when you wake up (whenever in the day that is)
  • A long bath after a shift
  • Three long deep breaths in your car before you start your shift

Once you’ve created a habit of checking in somehow, you will be able to start figuring out why you may be experiencing burnout and what steps you need to take. Which takes me to my next point…

Intentionally Redirect

Talking to others and doing some self-reflection are key in figuring out why you’re experiencing burnout. Are you reacting emotionally instead of rationally? Are you in physical or emotional pain? Are you just plain damn tired?

If you can isolate what’s wrong, you start making beneficial changes to your health. A happy nurse is a safe patient, so please take the time to do some self care.

Maybe you need to make some short-term (acute) changes:

  • Stop picking up extra shifts for awhile
  • Take a mental health day… just today. Don’t make this a habit
    • Yes, the same action can be a symptom of burnout and a solution to short-term burnout
  • Take a vacation!

But maybe your burnout requires some more long-term solutions:

  • Focus on establishing a sleep regimen/routine
  • Put more emphasis on healthy eating
  • Establish boundaries at work between yourself and management
  • Get yourself a side hustle and decrease your nursing hours
  • Try a different type of nursing (there are so many, guys)
  • Go back to school, maybe an APRN is more your thing
  • Quit and travel the world 😉

However you decide to change your life so that you can continue being the best nurse that you are, remember: do not feel guilty. You deserve to have a fulfilling career in whatever setting that is. I know you all have busy lives–you are probably parents, you have bills to pay, and people to worry about. But you are fundamentally a human worthy of care.

You do not need to be in the hospital to be taken care of.

-Sydney

Have you ever experienced burnout? How did you overcome it? Let me know in the comments below!

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About Sydney

Sydney Bair is a freelance writer for hire. She specializes in health/travel blogging, ghostwriting, and proofreading and editing. In addition, she is a registered nurse with experience in oncology and hospice. When not writing, she plans her next travel adventure. Check her out at https://sydney-writes.com/hire-me/