How to Help Curb Burnout Among Nurses

Stress is through the roof for health care workers.

Front-line workers are bearing the terrible brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one group feeling it the most is nurses. Nursing has always been a difficult job, says Holly Carpenter, senior policy advisor for nursing practice and work environment and innovation at the American Nurses Association. “We find that, year after year, between 60% and 80% feel at risk for anxiety. To me, common sense dictates, yes, it’s getting worse,” she says.

A recent ANA survey of 22,000 nurses asked respondents over the past 14 days how they were feeling. The results found:

— 51% feel exhausted.

— 43% feel overwhelmed.

— 28% feel a desire to quit the profession or their current position.

What can be done to help nurses through this crisis?

What is burnout?

Everyone, no matter what the job, feels occasionally exhausted, unmotivated and overstressed — a bad day or week is par for the course. But when you experience longer periods of “bad days,” with no end in sight, you may be burning out.

The Cleveland Clinic defines nurse burnout as:

Emotional exhaustion. More than just physically tired, you feel emotionally spent, without the motivation to keep working hard.

Depersonalization. You no longer feel a personal connection or a passion for your patients’ care and well-being.

Dissatisfaction in personal achievements. You don’t feel competent or care about achievement in your work.

What causes nurses to burn out?

“It’s generally not just one thing. It’s a combination of many things, many very serious,” Carpenter says. She lists:

— Giving too much of yourself with little to no respite or replenishment.

— Understaffing.

— Mandatory overtime.

— Too many patients.

— No time for breaks.

— Feeling a lack of employer support and meaningful recognition.

— Lack of critical supplies, such as personal protective equipment.

— Lack of emotional support when a patient dies.

— Workplace violence.

“When you put your life in danger, and you can’t go home, a free pizza isn’t a meaningful recognition of your sacrifice,” Carpenter says.

Robin McGee, a registered nurse and regional health and wellness director at Brightview Senior Living, based in Rhode Island, says many of her colleagues working in a hospital are feeling burned out. “It’s a big deal, a big problem now. They don’t know if they will be able to go home, they work long shifts, it’s really tough. A lot are suffering mental and physical fatigue. I heard people going on medication,” she says.

Here are some steps nurses and administrators can take to alleviate the stress that leads to burnout.

Make time for self-care.

Healthy lifestyle choices go a long way in stress relief. That includes the obvious, including eating nutritional meals, drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol and drugs. In addition, you should practice self-care in these ways:

Get proper rest. “Nothing is more important than seven to nine hours of sleep,” Carpenter says.

Exercise. Find time for restorative physical activity, even if you are on your feet for a long time, she says.

Find time to disengage. “Take 10 minutes to just be still,” McGee says. “You do have a lot on your plate. Take some deep breaths.”

Step away. Work with your employer to find time to take breaks, eat, drink and go to the bathroom.

Spend time outdoors. “Nature is so healing. It helps return you to a better mindset,” Carpenter says.

Balance work and life as best you can. “Nurses feel guilty when they take a vacation. They need to remember they earned that vacation,” Carpenter says.

Unplug. Put down your smartphones and laptops at least 30 minutes a day, such as during meals or before going to bed.

Connect with loved ones.

Spend time with those “who give you hope and health,” Carpenter says. Friends and family can help you decompress, but so can colleagues.

“Sharing what you’re going through, no one knows like another nurse,” she says.

On the flip side, avoid people who add stress to your life when possible. You don’t need them right now.

Practice resiliency.

Mindfulness strategies can help boost resilience during difficult times. This can be done in a variety of ways:

Spirituality. Attend services online or outdoors, or practice your spiritual rituals any way you can.

Gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal is a proven strategy for increasing happiness.

Yoga. Relaxing exercise can calm both mind and body.

Meditation. Take an online class on mindfulness meditation to learn how.

Me time. “When off work, do something fun — crafting, music, yard work, travel when allowed, things you enjoy that get you out of your head,” Carpenter says.

Work with your supervisors.

Engage with leadership to address and relieve the things that are causing anxiety and stress in your workplace.

If you are being asked to do too much, learn to say no or delegate tasks whenever possible.

“Assure there is optimal staffing so you’re not overworked,” Carpenter says. Also ask that specific wellness staff are on duty to help assess mental health. “It should be available to everyone, be confidential, free or low cost and easily accessible,” she says.

Find help.

If you or someone you know is feeling or showing the signs of burnout described above, it may be time to investigate some options, such as:

— Employer or health insurance offers of mental health assessment and treatment.

— Employee assistance program, or EAP, options for wellness and counseling.

Support groups.

There are also two free health initiatives, available to all nurses:

Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation. This nurse health, safety and wellness program is run by ANA Enterprise: Improving the Nation’s Health-One Nurse at a Time.

Well-Being Initiative. Launched by the American Nurses Foundation, this offers free tools and apps to support the mental health and resilience of nurses.

Do it sooner rather than later: “Why wait until you’re in crisis,” Carpenter says. She also reminds us that, “Nursing is still a wonderful and rewarding profession. No career is more rewarding. Nurses are coming out of retirement to give vaccinations. It is a calling, and there is lots of joy in making a difference.”

Here are five ways for nurses to curb burnout:

— Make time for self-care.

— Connect with loved ones.

— Practice resiliency.

— Work with your supervisors.

— Find help.

More from U.S. News

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