What is Nurse Burnout and How to Deal With It?

5 Min Read Published August 24, 2023
What is Nurse Burnout and How to Deal With It?

Nursing is a noble profession that needs people with resilience, compassion, and dedication. However, the demanding nature of the job can often lead to burnout. Nurse burnout is a serious problem that is affecting nurses at an alarming rate. 

According to our State of Nursing Report, 79% of nurses feel that their units are understaffed. This can have a significant impact on both the nurses themselves and the patients they care for.

What is Nurse Burnout? 

Nurse burnout refers to a condition characterized by profound physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. This occurs when nurses are consistently exposed to high levels of stress. 

Burnout can manifest in different ways as a nurse, making it harder to identify. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Feeling emotionally drained
  • Feeling cynical or apathetic about work
  • Having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling physically exhausted
  • Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Thoughts of quitting or retiring early

Recognizing signs of burnout in colleagues is crucial for offering support and intervention. Some common signs to look out for include regular lateness or absences, withdrawal from social activities, and resistance to changes at work. 

Physical signs at home may include insomnia, digestive problems, and head and body aches.

How Big of an Issue is Nurse Burnout?

Nursing burnout represents a significant and pressing issue within the healthcare industry. In the State of Nursing Report, a majority of nurses (60%) express their love for the profession, but a concerning 62% were harboring concerns about the future of nursing. 

According to nurses in this report, 

  • 71% believe in addressing improved staffing ratios
  • 64% think better pay
  • 41% feel that better working conditions are crucial for mitigating burnout

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) performed a research study called “Examining the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Burnout & Stress Among U.S. Nurses”  that analyzed the effects of stress, burnout, and retirement during the pandemic. 

They found that 100,000 nurses have left the profession in the last two years. Additionally, a concerning 610,388 nurses have expressed that they intend to leave the profession by 2027, citing stress and burnout, along with retirement, as contributing factors.

The impact is not limited to RNs, as the ranks of Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) have declined by 33,811 since the pandemic, with indications of a further decrease.

Nurse Burnout Causes

Nurse burnout is a prevalent issue impacting nurses nationwide, resulting from a combination of factors. The causes of burnout typically stem from long-standing problems rather than isolated incidents. These factors often include,

  • Excessive workload
  • Limited control over job performance
  • Inadequate compensation
  • Lack of collaboration 

The burden of an overwhelming workload, extended working hours, and consecutive shifts can contribute to sleep deprivation and heightened stress levels. 

When nurses feel micromanaged and lack autonomy, it leads to a sense of distrust and anxiety about their work. 

Nurses often face the issue of being underpaid despite their dedicated efforts in patient care. This can create a sense of stagnation with limited opportunities for promotion or fair salary increases. 

Dangers of Nurse Burnout

Nurse burnout can have several negative consequences, both for the nurses themselves and the patients they care for. Some of the dangers associated with nurse burnout include:

  • Increased risk of errors
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased turnover rates
  • Health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and heart disease

For patients, nurse burnout can lead to:

  • Decreased quality of care
  • Increased risk of complications
  • Increased length of stay in the hospital
  • Decreased patient satisfaction

Nurse Burnout Prevention 

Certain factors contributing to nurse burnout may be beyond control within a healthcare facility. Still, there are proactive measures that can be taken to mitigate it. Here are some that hospitals and nursing organizations are trying out. 

1. Wellness Coaching & Fostering Community

Implementing wellness coaching and fostering a sense of community within the facility can help prevent burnout. This can involve staff meetings where personal experiences causing distress are shared and celebrating birthdays and other milestones.

2. AACN’s Well-Being Initiative

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) has launched the Well-Being Initiative, which specifically addresses the mental and emotional challenges faced by nurses. Collaborating with various nursing organizations, they offer free tools and resources to support the mental health and overall well-being of nurses. 

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact nurses' mental health, the Well-Being Initiative provides a comprehensive guide with practical activities to address these challenges. Recommendations include maintaining a balanced diet, regular exercise, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, spending time in nature, and more.

3. NIOSH Mental Health Initiative for Health Workers

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has taken action by establishing a Mental Health Initiative for Health Workers. With funding received from Congress in 2021, NIOSH, in collaboration with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), aims to raise national awareness and provide education to enhance and safeguard the mental health of healthcare professionals. 

This initiative encompasses healthcare workers across various roles, including physicians, nurses, and public health workers, emphasizing the importance of mental well-being. NIOSH and CDC are dedicated to developing adaptable tools and identifying burnout and other well-being challenges associated with healthcare workers.

What Nurses Need to Know About Burnout

Nurses need to be vigilant about recognizing the signs and symptoms of burnout, understanding its potential impact, and actively prioritizing their own well-being. 

Just as nurses dedicate themselves to caring for the health of their patients, it is equally crucial for them to take care of their mental health. 

By familiarizing themselves with the signs of burnout and compassion fatigue, nurses can identify these conditions early on as they begin to manifest. It is essential to engage in self-care practices and make their well-being a priority.

If you are feeling burned out, it is important to seek help. There are many resources available to help you cope with burnout, including:

  • Your employer's employee assistance program
  • A therapist or counselor
  • A support group
  • Wellness and mental health initiative programs

Nurse burnout is a serious problem that can have a significant impact on both nurses and patients. However, there are a number of things that can be done to prevent burnout. If you are feeling burned out, it is important to seek help. There are a number of resources available to help you cope with burnout and get back to enjoying your work.


Breann Kakacek
Breann Kakacek
Nurse.org Contributor

Breann Kakacek BSN RN has been a registered nurse for more than 8 years and a CNA for 2 years while going through the nursing program. Most of her nursing years include working in the medical ICU and Cardiovascular ICU and moonlighting in the OR as a circulating nurse. She has always had a passion for writing and enjoys using her nursing knowledge to create amazing online content.

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