When we talk to nurses these days, there’s a common pain point across our conversations: they feel pushed to their limits. In fact, a recent Nurse.org survey showed just how overwhelmed nurses are, with 87% of respondents saying they felt burnt out at some point over the last year.
That’s why, when you’re on the verge of burn out, you need to take care of yourself the way you would an at-risk patient. Especially because there’s still time to reverse the ill effects of stress. While 70% of respondents from the survey still think nursing is a great career, only about 64% would recommend new nurses to join the profession. This has us concerned about what will happen if chronic feelings of fatigue or exhaustion continue unaddressed.
So, how do you recover from nurse burnout? For those looking for direction, here is how other nurses and mental-health professionals recommend rebuilding your morale and reducing stress in your career.
1.) Identify Your Stressors
In the short term, stress isn’t a bad thing. Studies show that feelings of stress in the right amount push people to achieve and remain alert. For anyone who has worked in an ER or ICU, you know this type of tension keeps you attentive enough to catch early warning signs and respond with urgency. Only when stress becomes chronic and cortisol takes roost, do we see issues with social interactions, cognitive impairment, and mood arise.
By this point in the pandemic, it’s often hard to feel anything but a wave of negative emotions crashing over you. That is, unless you take the time to sift through what you’re feeling and name the different sources of your burn out. When nurses are feeling chronic stress, their diagnoses skills can serve them well, identifying the root cause of stress and helping them climb out of their emotional ravine.
Problems like patient surges, staff shortages, and increased responsibilities are obvious, but other less-apparent issues contribute to the burnout picture as well:
- Are you worried about your well-being due to inadequate medical supplies?
- Are one or more coworkers creating conflict in the workplace?
- Are you dealing with more aggressive or violent patients?
- Is leadership failing to take your suggestions or requests seriously?
- Are you feeling unsupported?
Once you have your answers, you can do what nurses do best: solve problems. After identifying all the sources of stress on-the-job, reach out to those people in your professional network who can help you overcome or lessen the source of your aggravation. Your social safety can provide room to vent, if not help you overcome problems directly.
If you haven’t reached out to your shift supervisor or nurse manager, you can get them involved in addressing issues (in this environment, don’t assume your challenges are automatically on their radar). If they’re dismissive of your solitary concerns, coordinate with your coworkers to demand changes.
And if the whole job, from end to end, is the source of your problems, it might be time to consider a change, whether it’s companies or positions (more on this later).
2.) Draw Boundaries Where You Can
Right now, we know healthcare providers and nursing supervisors are in crisis mode, which has a domino effect on all other staff members. Because of leadership’s hiring challenges, many nurses now find it difficult to request time off, take breaks, or even turn down extra shifts. Combined with the unrealistic (and all too popular) belief that nurses are superhuman, you’re more likely to find resistance to establishing your own work/life balance.
How do you draw boundaries when you’re expected to work, in some cases, 16 hours without a moment’s rest, all without dropping any balls at home? You can do so by keeping these two strategies in mind.
One familiar challenge is avoiding over-involvement in patients’ lives. With the volume of patients crowding healthcare facilities, nurses are exposed to more life-or-death situations. The quantity alone makes it more likely that you’ll co-experience patients’ pain and anguish as you cater to their therapeutic needs, creating vicarious trauma for you. That’s terrible for your long-term mental health.
Though you want to establish trust and mutual respect with your patients, keeping boundaries between yourself and your patients is key to avoiding compassion fatigue: the emotional and physical exhaustion that leads to diminished feelings of compassion for others. Remember that you’re only human and there is only so much you can do with the time, resources, and cooperation from patients you’re assigned.
At the end of your shift, after you’ve clocked out and changed out of your scrubs, you need to leave your work behind you–full stop. For your own sake, unplug from your work email and text to spend time with your loved ones or recharge your emotional batteries. Honestly, treating yourself to self-care in between shifts – whether it’s binging comfort-food while watching TV, doing yoga, or taking in nature – determines how well you’ll recover from nurse burnout.
Even if you can’t schedule time off yet, plan as if you can. A study during the pandemic found that people who stayed resilient during uncertainty managed to pull off the tricky talent of being mindful and planning ahead for the future. NC State University psychology professor Shevaun Neupert said to the BBC that “the anticipation of something good is really powerful” and that even small plans should be celebrated.
Whether you’re planning for fun with the family this summer or researching a bucket-list travel destination, future plans can reduce anxiety now and make the stresses of today seem temporary.
3.) Embrace Self-Compassion
How are you treating yourself these days? Your answer will likely reveal whether you’re currently dealing with nursing burnout.
The story of one ER nurse’s reason for leaving the profession probably reflects the experience of many nurses these days: crowded units, preemptive discharges, and declining patient care because of staff shortages. As nurses are forced to choose between multiple undesirable choices, many start to feel emotional guilt or shame known as moral injury.
This form of post-traumatic stress disorder occurs “When someone does something that goes against their beliefs […] and when they fail to do something in line with their beliefs.” Like other forms of PTSD, this condition can fly under the radar until it’s too late. Fortunately, there are some nurses and healthcare facilities that are trying to address this problem before it causes long-term damage.
For example, Mark Schimmelpfennig, Staff Chaplain and Faculty Member at Rush University Medical Center, has been applying treatments used to help returning combat veterans heal in the wake of PTSD. The program he uses combines group therapy, journaling, and healthy methods of decompression.
One of the key pillars of the program is self-compassion rather than self-esteem or self-motivation in potentially traumatizing situations. If nurses can acknowledge they are suffering through tough situations, just like their patients, and apply kindness to their self-response, they can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression before negative emotions take root.
4.) Consider Other Nursing Options
What if your current job is just too much for here and now? Nursing environments these days vary greatly depending on the pandemic response of your state and whether your care facility is amid a census surge. When you feel your whole work environment is not designed to support you, remember that sometimes, you need to take care of yourself first.
A story from Health Worker Burnout recounts how a nurse recovered from her own burnout. Missing the signs of burnout or compassion fatigue in herself, she became cynical and dreaded going to work. Eventually, through the encouragement of family and friends, she stepped away for six months, returning to work rejuvenated. Though she took that time off, there are other opportunities for you to take a breather for yourself (if you can’t afford a sabbatical) and still make money while you’re at it.
In some cases, you might be able to take a travel nurse opportunity that brings you to a location that needs your help but isn’t dealing with a surge. Or, you can transition to lower-stress roles, like nurse educator or home health nurse roles; these positions are highlighted in the Nurse.org survey as reporting higher current job satisfaction. However, there’s one area that is often overlooked, but equally rewarding: nurse case management.
In a nurse case manager role, you can use your clinical knowledge to interact with patients virtually, offering them accountability for appointments and preventative health practices as well as coaching them on how to improve their overall wellbeing. You’ll be part-coach and part-nurse with a greater chance for work-life balance and far lower stress. Whether this type of role becomes a permanent career or just a chance to take a breather, it might be what you need to recover from nurse burnout.
Looking for opportunities to help you recover from nurse burnout? Check out these work-from-home roles to help reduce your stress and keep your overall peace of mind.