Nurse Burnout Isn't Fatal: My Perspective

by Rachel, Seattle area RN

Burnout. We’ve all heard the term, and it’s often used to describe nurses. Nurse burnout can describe someone who has worked too many days in a row and is in desperate need of a break, but it can also mean something else.

Sometimes, nurse burnout requires more than just a few days off to fix. In some cases, nurses with burnout pursue entirely new careers, doing whatever it takes to get away from the bedside.

My Story

Like many nurses, my symptoms of burnout began without warning. I had been an ICU nurse for four years, and while I thought feeling burned out was something that might eventually happen, it wasn’t quite on my personal radar yet.

But then, gradually, my friends, family, and coworkers started noticing changes. Nothing had changed in my workload, my schedule, or my life at home -- but there were definitely changes in me.

Symptoms Of Burnout

First, I became a lot more cynical. I constantly assumed the worst about everyone and everything. Showing compassion and giving people the benefit of the doubt was something I no longer did.

And empathy, something I used to think I was so good at, became foreign to me. My whole outlook on nursing and the way I treated patients was shifting, and not in a positive direction.

Then I started dreading going to work. Not many people absolutely love every detail of their job, but for me, seeing work as a chore was a definite change.

I worked in a well-staffed unit with amazing coworkers, and I used to look forward to my shifts. But gradually, getting ready for work and driving to the hospital seemed harder every day. And, at the end of my shifts, I was bolting home as if my life depended on getting away.

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I knew for sure something was wrong when I started losing my patience. I was short and irritable with family, friends, coworkers, and worst of all, my patients.

The sound of a call light felt like nails on a chalkboard. Monitor alarms made me cringe. Not just once or twice – this was constant. I wasn’t having any “good” days at work; every day was a challenge, and it was getting worse.

I finally realized what was happening when I was talking to a coworker about how I felt. I still remember her words: “You’re just burned out. You need a change for a bit; something different.”

Time For A Change

I took my friend’s advice. I saved up some money, quit my job, and left the country for six months. I traveled, learned Spanish, and met some wonderful people. When I came home, I went back to nursing.

Before returning to work, I worried that nothing had changed. What if I hated my job just as much as I did before? What if I was still that terrible, cynical nurse?

Amazingly enough, things were back to normal. I felt like my old nurse self. All I had needed was a true break. Six months may seem like a long time, but it changed my attitude and outlook on nursing.

What Works For You?

Dealing with burnout by leaving the country is a bit extreme for most, but it worked well for me. Others may only need a job change, a short vacation, or a staycation.

Some other ideas for coping with burnout include talking it out with a fellow nurse, a friend, or even a therapist. Another alternative would be to spend time with a dog or other animal!

Initiate Change

The job of a nurse is atypical in that we deal with human lives. Yes, we do our job, but our job takes so much more – it is emotionally and physically draining, and it’s important to recognize when our work is taking more from us than we can give.

I now recognize the symptoms of burnout. I’ve learned to care for myself before slipping into the burned out nurse who isn’t “me.”

Remember, burnout isn’t a fatal diagnosis, so don’t let it rule your life, especially if you’re a nurse. Recognize the symptoms and initiate a change. You’re worth it! 

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Next Up: 9 Signs It’s Time For You To Move On From Your Current Job

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