How to Build Up Your Reserves to Prevent Nurse Burnout
By Jennifer Larson, contributor
Running on overdrive? Nurses can use self-care to build resilience, manage stress and prevent burnout.
The work of a nurse is inherently stressful, and it takes a toll on both your mental and your physical health. If left unaddressed, it could lead to professional burnout. That’s one reason that self-care is once again the focus of the first week of Nurses Month in May.
Nurse burnout is more than just feeling exhausted after successive shifts, or having a difficult week. It is a widespread problem characterized by a reduction in a nurse’s energy that manifests in emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation and feelings of frustration. It often builds up over time, and can lead to reduced efficiency and poorer patient outcomes.
Don’t let your situation get to that point. Don’t wait until stress pushes you to your limits to find some effective coping strategies. Instead, choose to take proactive steps to reduce your stress levels, maintain your mental health and prevent nurse burnout.
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Acknowledge the price of nursing stress
First, be honest with yourself about the cost that stress extracts from you. You are not immune from stress, nor does anyone expect you to be.
“Unfortunately, job-related stress is a normal part of many professions, including nursing, but the problems begin when stress is accompanied by shame, seen as a sign of weakness and ignored,” said John Lee, PhD, director of clinical psychology for Executive Mental Health, based in Los Angeles.
Nurse practitioner and career mentor Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, CFNP, in Palo Alto, California, noted that the cost of always pulling an extra shift or staying late to cover a sick call will add up.
“Symptoms that responsibilities have become too much may include headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, lack of interest in activities, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and lack of motivation,” she said.
If you acknowledge that stress is affecting you, you can begin to address the issue. That might include seeking professional help.
Haleigh Sullivan, BSN, RN, knows what it’s like to experience nurse burnout. Two years working long shifts, often at night, in an intensive care unit left her feeling depleted. Acknowledging and processing her feelings with the help of a mental health professional has helped her.
“Nurses being vocal about the help they seek will help to destigmatize and normalize the difficulties of the profession,” said Sullivan, who now works at a plastic surgery practice in Marina del Rey, California.
Self-sacrifice is a common trait in nursing, and preventing burnout has become a growing concern in recent years—even before the COVID-19 pandemic began to take its toll on nurses’ health.
“Nurses are taught to care for others; it is ingrained in their life purpose,” wrote Cynthia Blum, PhD, RN, CNE, in a 2014 article for the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing (OJIN). “However, in my experience, nurses often express reluctance to take the time required to care for themselves or they have difficulty finding self-care activities that match their interests and that are easily assimilated into their lives.”
Does that sound a little too familiar? Do you put yourself last in many cases?
“It becomes habit,” Brook explained. “You take on whatever is asked of you, even as the burden becomes heavier.”
Experts encourage you to rethink things and move yourself and your own needs higher up on your priority list. Figure out what you need to do to reduce your stress levels.
Take proactive steps to prevent nurse burnout
Some ideas to reduce stress and help maintain your health may include:
- Carving out time in the morning for some meditation;
- Attending an exercise class after work;
- Learning to say “no” when someone asks you to take on yet another responsibility;
- Finding time on a regular basis to read, knit, garden, paint, cook or do whatever activity relaxes you and brings you joy;
- Outsourcing some tasks that you hate doing (but which need to be done);
- Writing in a journal or keeping a gratitude diary.
It may take a while to learn to prioritize your own needs—just don’t give up.
“At a certain point, and often fairly rapidly, the benefits are going to accrue, and at the end of the day, they’re going to be able to make you better at your job,” said psychologist James Jackson, PsyD, director of long-term outcomes for the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “The key is to get over the hump.”
Be prepared for stressful situations
Preparing in advance can help you cope better when stress levels spike. For example, completing an Emergency Self-care Worksheet could possibly help you plan ahead for stressful situations.
This list of questions, prepared by Elaine S. Rinfrette, PhD, LCSW-R, can give you a good start:
1. Make a list of what you can do when you are upset that will be good for you.
2. Make a list of people you can contact if you need support or distraction.
3. Make a list of positive things to say to yourself when you are giving yourself a hard time.
4. Make a list of who and what to avoid when you are having a hard time.
5. Write this plan on a 3”x 5” card. Keep it in your purse/wallet (and on your phone if you can). Look at it often. Add any good ideas to it whenever you can.
Identify your most effective coping mechanisms, so you can practice them in non-stressful times. Then it will be easier to call upon them when stress peaks.
“Stress is part of a nurse’s day-to-day,” said Lee. “Being prepared for it can make it easier to overcome it.”
More information on wellness and self-care for nurses:
Coping Strategies for Nurses: How to Manage Ongoing Stress During COVID-19
Social Support: How to Find It, Keep It and Benefit from It
How Technology Can Help Nurses’ Mental Health
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