Nursing has always been a career with high burnout risk, in large part due to the emotional highs and lows of patient care and the pandemic renewed concern for nurses' well-being. The cumulative stress and exhaustion associated with long hours, caring for acutely ill patients and the unknowns of a wrathful virus have been burdensome in life-changing ways.
From supply constraints and staffing limitations to heightened infection control requirements and an avalanche of patients, the pandemic placed nurses in frightening scenarios. But while academics will study the effects for years, emerging research holds that burnout was already on the rise before COVID-19.
The Nurse Burnout 2020 study by KLAS Research queried 37,440 nurses, mostly pre-pandemic. Close to 80% (75.4) reported no feelings of burnout. That left 24.6% who acknowledged one or more symptoms, such as emotional exhaustion or persistent work frustrations. Compared with data from the National Nursing Engagement Report (PRC, 2019), in which 15.6% of those surveyed reported feelings of burnout, an increase exceeding 57% in one year. Actual burnout may be even higher now.
What Factors Contribute to Nurse Burnout?
Nurses are chronic multi-taskers, typically juggling patient care, charting, phone calls and more. Three factors come to mind as contributing to burnout:
Staffing shortages. Some facilities deal with workforce deficits, resulting in overtime and extra work that exacerbates burnout risk for the remaining staff.
Alarm fatigue. Older versions of bedside monitoring devices are often not sensitive enough to detect a true emergency from a normal variation, adding unnecessary stress caused by frequent false alarms.
IT burdens. Electronic health records have eliminated paper charting, but the sheer quantity of digital data is overwhelming. Nurses may feel like they are treating the computer and not the patient, and they struggle to find a balance.
How Can Nurses Prevent or Manage Burnout?
Burnout is insidious, with symptoms building over time until they reach a breaking point. Nurses must incorporate self-care into their day-to-day lives to keep burnout at bay. Try the tactics below to see what works best for you:
Meditation and mindfulness. Slow your thoughts and focus your attention, even for just a minute or two. Smartphone apps like Headspace make this simple by offering free, guided meditations and resources for living aware.
Breathing exercises. Controlled breathing lets you reset, lower adrenaline and stay in the present. Box breathing — inhale for four seconds and hold for four, breathe out for four and pause, then repeat — is a great option that can be done anywhere and at any time, even at a patient’s bedside.
Plan. Feeling like you lack control may contribute to burnout, so exert your power and reduce uncertainty where you can. Prep meals on the weekends, schedule a recurring end-of-week massage or block off 30 minutes each day just for you to do something you enjoy, like taking a walk, listening to a podcast or video chatting with a friend.
Tech shortcuts. If offered by your employer, take advantage of speech recognition software, as it streamlines documentation and gives more time for patient care.
Outside assistance. Note the resiliency tools and resources offered by the American Nurses Association, including a podcast and apps. If your burnout symptoms have become unmanageable, consider reaching out to your employer. Many provide free counseling or referrals to mental health professionals. If you are experiencing sleep disturbances, depression or anxiety, your primary care physician is another place to turn for help.
Nurses are particularly susceptible to burnout. By prioritizing self-care and utilizing other resources, they can successfully navigate these feelings.
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