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Nurse Burnout: Causes, Statistics, and Warning Signs

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Nurse burnout title graphic showing exhausted and burned out nurses in a break room napping and drinking coffee.

Being a nurse is a deeply fulfilling and vastly challenging career. Caring for people when they need compassion the most can bring a sense of purpose at work.

On the other hand, attending patients when they are going through an acute health crisis can also be a heavy burden.

Nurses face long working hours, understaffing, and the stress of caring for patients who might not live or who are going through difficult health crises. These major stressors can easily lead to nurse burnout.

What is Nursing Burnout?

Nursing burnout is caused when a nurse has been pushed to the point of being unable to mentally, emotionally, and/or physically function well at work anymore. A nurse might feel like they just don’t have enough emotional capacity to care as much. Or they might feel drained and perpetually exhausted.

Nurse burnout is also called compassion fatigue. This usually refers to how much compassion nurses are required to give in their work. When the fatigue sets in, it can be really hard to continue to pour compassion into patients at the same level as before.

Nursing burnout can be dangerous for both the nurse and the patient. The stress of this experience can lead to even further burnout, which could potentially lead the nurse to quit their job altogether if things aren’t addressed early.

Nurse Burnout Rates and Statistics

As the Baby Boomer generation retires, this leaves more nursing jobs open and not enough trained nurses to fill those positions. An aging population needs more nursing care overall, so nurses face serious stress when it comes to having a high patient load.

Nurses care for people going through hard experiences, which adds up over time. This means that nurses face significant emotional burdens and, when left unaddressed, this can lead to job burnout. Many people in high-stress careers, such as teachers and moms, face high risks of experiencing burnout as well.

Nurse burnout rates are currently at an all time high in the US. So many factors play into this, but the statistics are indeed alarming. Some studies on nursing burnout report that rates might be as high as 43% of nurses who have felt some burnout at some point in their careers.

Feelings of engagement are one way to measure potential burnout. A study put out by PRC Custom Research shows that between 10% and 20% of nurses feel unengaged in their work.

The rates of nurses leaving the profession each year has increased from 40,000 in 2010 to 80,000 in 2020. As nurses in the Baby Boomer generation begin to retire at increased rates, the nursing shortage also increases causing tension and stress on Gen X and Millennial nurses.

Those at highest risk for burnout include nurses who work in the emergency department, followed by those who work in the ICU. An additional category of nurses that struggle with engagement include those who work night shifts.

As the ED and the ICU are intensive care places, it becomes even more alarming to have high needs patients cared for by nurses who don’t feel engaged or are suffering from compassion fatigue. This can lead to increased rates of accidents or missing important clues and symptoms, which can lead to negative outcomes for patients and even accidental deaths.

What are the Causes of Nurse Burnout?

Graphic depicting some factors that cause nursing burnout as interlocking puzzle pieces. The factors include long hours, lack of sleep, high-stress environment, lack of support, stress as a caretaker, and strain from patient care.

Nursing is a difficult profession and it’s possible for new and veteran nurses alike to experience burnout. The professional environmental stresses combined with personal life stresses can create the perfect storm. No two nurses’ experiences are the same, but the job demands can affect nurses in similar ways.

These are a few of the most common causes of burnout in the nursing profession.

Long Hours

Long hours are one factor that leads to nurse burnout. In this graphic, the words long hours are accompanied by an hour glass on a dark blue puzzle piece background.

Nursing shifts can last up to 12-hours and involve lots of running around with few breaks or opportunities for rest, food, and water.

In some hospital environments, the nursing shortage is so severe that nurses are asked to work shifts close together, not allowing nurses to get adequate rest between shifts.

Lack of Sleep

Lack of sleep is a factor that leads to nurse burnout. In this graphic, the words lack of sleep are accompanied by a drawing of a person sleeping on a blue puzzle piece background.

Many nurses work their long shifts over a period of subsequent days, meaning that the only thing they have time for outside of work is eating and sleeping. But with the tensions of work and the lack of time for self-care during these days means that it can be hard to get caught up on rest.

Worries about things that happened during the day combined with the needs of home and family means that some nurses don’t get enough sleep once they are home from work.

High-Stress Environment

A high-stress environment is a factor that leads to nurse burnout. In this graphic, the words high-stress environment are accompanied by a drawing of a line that has created a curling maze on a light blue puzzle piece background.

Nursing is a tough job in the best of times. But with nursing shortages and staffing issues, nurses have to work twice as hard as usual.

This might mean taking on more patients than is typically healthy (greater than a 1:4 patient ratio). It can also mean picking up shifts due to not having enough nurses to work.

Many departments in hospitals are just naturally high-stress as well, especially those that deal with emergencies and high mortality rates. These experiences wear a person thin over time and, as nurses spend the most time with patients, they can take the brunt of such an emotionally difficult job.

Lack of Support

Lack of support is a factor that leads to nurse burnout. In this graphic, the words lack of support are accompanied by a drawing of a broken chain on a yellow puzzle piece background.

A nursing shortage means that everyone in a department is stressed out and overworked. This leaves little support for nurses who are working more than one person’s job.

Some teams aren’t especially connected to each other either, or some personalities can be toxic and harmful to the team spirit and work environment. This can lead to nurses feeling like they’re alone in their struggles or even navigating coworker stress in addition to the stress of the job.

Compounding Fatigue from Stress as a Family Caretaker

Stress as a caretaker is a factor that leads to nurse burnout. In this graphic, the words stress as a caretaker are accompanied by a drawing of a mother with two children on an orange puzzle piece background.

Those nurses who also have families to care for once they go home end up working around the clock. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for rest and self-care.

Mothers and caregivers end up with depleted emotional banks and not much compassion left to give. This cycle is disastrous and can lead to serious mental and physical health issues.

Emotional Strain from Patient Care

Emotional strain from patient care is a factor that leads to nurse burnout. In this graphic, the words emotional strain from patient care are accompanied by a drawing of 5 stick figures in a row with a cross on the middle figures chest on a red puzzle piece background.

When nurses are given too many patients to care for and not enough time to spend with each one, their abilities to give truly compassionate and thorough care is drastically diminished.

The demands of modern medicine and the hospital environment means that healthcare professionals don’t have the time to make meaningful connections with their patients.

This kind of stress is magnified when compared with the adjacent career of a wellness coach. This holistic career path allows for truly customized care with ample time for connection and thorough investigation of each person’s needs. When set side-by-side, it’s easy to see just how intense and ineffective the healthcare environment is for working nurses.

What are the Signs of Nurse Burnout?

A burned out nurse squats in a hallway outside of a hospital room and holds her hands to her head.

There can be many signs associated with nursing burnout and it’s important to watch for them so it can be caught and responded to early. Some of these signs include the following.

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization and a sense of apathy
  • Low personal accomplishment
  • Constant physical fatigue
  • Feeling underappreciated and unrecognized
  • Not feeling engaged with work or patients
  • All enthusiasm for work has disappeared
  • Sleep is disturbed and not restful
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Short-tempered and easily frustrated or negative
  • Health issues and physical illness symptoms
  • Dreading going to work and seeking reasons to call in sick or come in late

It’s important to watch for signs of burnout to avoid long term consequences such as chronic depression and anxiety and even suicidal tendencies.

Burnout syndrome has serious consequences for healthcare workers, especially nurses who do so much direct patient care.

Dealing with Nurse Stress and Burnout

Two nurses laugh to blow off steam while on break. Taking breaks and maintaining positive relationships with teammates is helpful in preventing nurse burnout.

Nursing burnout can be a devastating experience, but it’s all too common in this important profession. Understanding what it is and what symptoms to look for can help you know what to do next to help yourself and how to get help from others.

Here are a few tips to get out of burnout and back into healthy engagement once again.

1. Advocate for Better Schedules

Healthcare professionals notoriously have awful schedules and work far too many hours in one shift. Advocating for better shift schedules can really change how nurses feel about their jobs and increase their ability to do their best work when they’re on the clock.

Shifts that are over 9 hours long are associated with more issues and accidents. Team leaders can build a more effective team by ensuring that nurses have more reasonable shift schedules.

2. Set Boundaries

Nurses often get sucked into the cycle of saying yes, especially as compassionate and giving people.

Setting healthy boundaries means learning when it’s time to say no and how to protect your physical and mental health. Learn to spot which situations push you toward burnout so you can set boundaries around them.

3. Advocate for More Breaks

Nurses work long hours on their feet and don’t get nearly as many breaks as human beings need in order to be healthy.

A team focused on improving nurses’ engagement needs to factor in regular breaks and ensure that nurses are taking them. Self-care during long shifts is critical.

4. Get Support

If you’re seeing early signs of burnout, don’t just suffer through—ask for support!

You might seek support from a supervisor, a therapist, and/or a good friend who is great at listening.

At the IAWP, we offer a supportive online program for anyone who is seeking to recover from burnout with the help of a wellness coach. Reclaiming You might just be the support you need to get back to vibrant health.

If you need time away from work, ask for it and take it. Supporting yourself is essential to being an effective and healthy nurse.

5. Build Healthy Teams

The team relationship is crucial for keeping a high quality of patient care and reducing nursing staff turnover.

Team leaders should focus on relationship development so each member of the team can trust each other. This can mean helping the team develop connections beyond work, including shared outings and get-togethers to be more involved as people and not just healthcare professionals.

6. Change Specialty or Focus

If you’re feeling burnt out on a specific department or style of nursing, it can be really helpful to switch things up. Choose a department that’s less intense and has a slower pace. Find a new challenge you enjoy to help you feel engaged and less stressed once again.

7. Become a Travel Nurse

Travel nursing can be a welcome relief from staff nursing. Going somewhere new, taking on the challenge of learning about a new team, enjoying different scenery—these experiences can all give you a fresh outlook and a renewed enjoyment for nursing.

8. Practice Wellness and Self-care

Self-care and wellness practices are crucial to effective nursing practice. When you eat healthy food, get regular exercise, and get quality sleep every night, you’ll be a much better nurse and overall human being.

Put your self-care practices at the very top of your priority list and you’ll find your way out of burnout in a hurry!

9. Set Realistic Expectations

Being a great nurse can sometimes feel like the bar is too high. Giving of yourself to each patient can often feel like overgiving. If you also have a family at home, you might find yourself completely worn thin from too much giving.

Be realistic with your nursing practice. Do your best, but also leave enough emotional energy for yourself. When things don’t go well for a patient recognize the great care you gave them and don’t beat yourself up for what you don’t have control over. Be gentle with yourself.

Consider a Career Change to Wellness Coaching

A former nurse consults with a client at her new job as a wellness coach.

Lots of people realize that working in a nursing profession isn’t exactly what they had imagined. Long work hours, little time with family, limited patient care time, and depressing patient outcomes can lead nurses down the road to burnout quickly.

You might find more fulfillment in a career that allows you to apply your love for compassion, caring, and health in a way that’s more personally meaningful—like becoming a Holistic Wellness Coach!

You’ll get to set your own schedule, spend as much time with clients as you’d like, and get to see your clients progress, heal, and create positive change in their lives.

Stories from Nurses Turned Wellness Coaches

“I never felt like I had the time or resources to really get to the root of the problem with my patients. I was at a crossroads in my career and I knew I needed to change.

When I found the IAWP and saw their Wellness 360 model, I got goosebumps.

I have since left my full-time nursing position and launched my wellness coaching business.”

Stacy Thewis, IAWP Certified Wellness Coach

Listen to Stacy’s story →

“I had a 13-year successful career as an RN. I began exploring natural health alternatives for my own illness of depression and found hope and success in learning to manage my symptoms without medication.

Since joining the IAWP, my life has been consistently aligned with the training. It has opened doors to new opportunities and created the foundation I was seeking.”

Sandra Payne, IAWP Certified Wellness Coach

More of Sandra’s story →

“Even though I have the background as a Nurse, I learned so much about holistic wellness and how to help individuals.

I’m so completely grateful for the IAWP because they have allowed me to transition into a coaching role so that I can help individuals one-on-one understand what’s going on with their mind, their bodies, their soul and spirit and really get them to a complete 360 degree of health and wellness.”

Shamika Wallace, IAWP Certified Wellness Coach

Listen to Shamika’s story →

Take Action to Start Your New Holistic Career

If you feel like it’s time for a change of pace and a new challenge, explore the unique and supportive ways that the IAWP helps students become successful coaches with thriving careers.

Speak with an admissions counselor today to find out how this exciting change could be just the right next move for your career.

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About the Author

Suzanne Monroe

Suzanne Monroe is the author of Live Well Dream Big: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming Your Best Self and Living Life on Your Own Terms. She has also written and published The Holistic Cookbook & Lifestyle Guide: 12 Weeks to a Healthier, Happier You, the co-author of 101 Ways to Improve Your Health and the host of the Live Well Dream Big Podcast. Suzanne was inspired to create the IAWP Wellness Coach Training & Certification Program in collaboration with other leading health experts in order to inspire people to create meaningful careers and spread the message of wellness.

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