Nurse Burnout Is Real: 7 Risk Factors And The Top 3 Symptoms

5 Min Read Published October 2, 2018
Nurse Burnout Is Real: 7 Risk Factors And The Top 3 Symptoms

Featured image source: Instagram @nurseabnormalities 

by Danielle LeVeck: DNP, ACNPC-AG, CCNS, CCRN

After burning out twice in my own career and fighting burnout on a weekly basis, I felt others could benefit from my own life experiences and knowledge of burnout research. When I was recently invited to give a presentation to ICU nurses regarding burnout, I asked my community of over 80K Instagram followers to help. The response was astounding, I received over 500 comments, including stories and advice about nurse burnout. I plotted the hundreds of responses and stories from my followers to create my presentation and deliver real-life advice concerning the evasion of nurse burnout. 

The following are the risks and symptoms of burnout, as well as methods of preventing burnout. 

7 Top Risks of Nurse Burnout

If someone had told me, statistically, I was a case of burnout waiting to happen, sometimes I think I would have been able to identify and acknowledge my own red flags. 

The following factors might predispose you to burning out. 

  1. Women are at a higher risk of burnout. Women tend to have higher levels of anxiety and more responsibilities at home and at work, thus burnout is a possibility. 
  2. Working in the ICU or in another high-stress environment like ER or Trauma, you are at a higher risk of burning out due to long hours and the intense emotional burden amongst other factors. 
  3. Being single or divorced, 
  4. Lacking spirituality of any kind, 
  5. Holding an Associates versus a Bachelor’s degree, you are at a higher risk of burning out. 
  6. Working full-time at the bedside, you are at a higher risk of burning out. In other words, the closer you are to the patient, the closer you may be to burning out. 
  7. If you are a nurse, especially a new grad, you are at a higher risk of burning out than any other position in healthcare. 

3 Key Symptoms of Burnout

The most common signs of burnout, which define “burnout syndrome” include: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment. 

  1. Emotional exhaustion is the single highest predictor of burnout and depersonalization is a coping mechanism we develop to deal with burnout. 
  2. Depersonalization -  we become so emotionally exhausted, that we have to “depersonalize,” or become numb to emotion to protect ourselves. 
  3. Lack of personal accomplishment is frequently found in ICU settings where nurses often experience death, trauma, and arguably futile care. 

While nurses experiencing burnout are more likely to provide subpar patient care and have decreased life satisfaction overall, surprisingly, many ICU nurses still say they love their jobs, making sustaining or leaving a very difficult choice. 

If you’re thinking about becoming a nurse, are a nursing student, or are a current nurse who is ready to transition careers - this guide will help guide you to make the best professional decisions.

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Top 4 Tips For Burnout Prevention

The research surrounding methods of burnout prevention is ongoing but, there have been some noteworthy themes within that research and from the 500 responses I received on my Instagram account from ICU nurses. 

1. Resilience

Resilience is defined as, the development of coping mechanisms to lessen the impact of trauma or emotional stress. Nurses who possessed resiliency were at less of a risk for burnout. 

The following quotation from one of Instagram user provides the prefect definition of coping and resilience to me: 

“No matter how [bad] the patient’s outcome, despite whatever efforts put forth, I know I did my part to do something (even if it was small) in that person’s life. It’s not up to me to understand the “whys” to [poor] circumstances, but to know I did something instead of nothing.”

Within resilience are the concepts of hope and spirituality. Nurses who shared a sense of hope and a belief in a higher purpose, tend to be more resilient and have a decreased risk for burnout.

2. Self-Care

 Self-care can mean many things to many people but, one thing is for sure - nurses need to take time for self-care. Regular exercise, avoidance of large amounts of caffeine and sugar, and using mental health and PTO days are three simple steps towards self-care. 

Overall, nurses who reported engaging in the following activities were able to sustain longer in their bedside positions. 

  • Exercise included yoga, running, rock climbing, and basically any physical activity.
  • Extra-curricular activities away from the job
  • PTO days for mental health - many said they took vacations or just had stay-cations at home. 

3. Recognizing triggers 

It’s important to acknowledge those times when you are feeling burned out and to take action to relieve yourself of those feelings. A few suggestions from the Instagram nurses responses include,  

  • Ask for easier patient assignments when they needed to recover from a previous emotional week. 
  • If the job became too much, some worked on other units one day per week, or performed admin duties part-time. 
  • Others began travel nursing or switched to lower acuity areas in the hospital. 

4. Strong coworker relationships

A final significant component of preventing nurse burnout is that of strong coworker relationships. Nurses who felt they could trust their coworkers and enjoyed going to work were at a lower risk for burnout. Some stated their units had inclusive, monthly dinners with each other and that all staff members were invited – doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, techs, respiratory therapists etc. 

Personally, I believe, nothing makes a team more connected than potlucks, baby showers, going away parties, or anything that deems a celebration to make all team members feel valued. Strong coworker relationships are built with effective communication from experienced nurses and management. 

When toxicity is identified on a unit, it should be dealt with quickly, because one negative person can increase the risk of burnout within your unit. 

Why should the entire healthcare team care?

No matter what role I take in healthcare, I will always be a bedside nurse first. While I am a team player, I truly believe nurses hold the most transformative roles in healthcare. And when a change needs to be made, no one can make a change like a collective group of nurses. With that being said, nurses are burning out at an exceedingly rapid rate. It is up to us to make the changes personally and professionally, so we can better care for ourselves and for our patients. 

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