Can Talking to Your Patients Help You Avoid Burnout?

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.

Burnout can be a much more serious issue than most people realize. Many nurses are working around the clock in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. From the demands of overtime to the stress of caring for infected patients, working on the front lines can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

Around a third of nurses directly caring for patients experience symptoms of burnout, including intense exhaustion, fatigue, a lack of control over their surroundings, and feelings of disillusionment. The pandemic will likely accelerate this trend across the country, especially for nurses working in the ICU.

Burnout leads to poor patient outcomes and satisfaction rates. It also increases the chances of medical errors and other mistakes that can endanger both providers and patients.

When we talk about burnout in the healthcare industry, it usually becomes a conversation about extended schedules, nurse-patient ratios, and nurses needing more time off, but that just isn’t an option for many of those working so hard.

A recent op-ed from Jason Han, a cardiac surgery resident at a hospital in Philadelphia, counters this narrative. He believes talking to patients and learning their stories can help nurses and providers avoid burnout on the job.


From Exhaustion to Inspiration

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Han recounts another long day at the hospital. After working 12 hours in the operating room, hunger, fatigue, and thirst start to replace the feeling of adrenaline. At this point, he’s been on-call for two weeks and he’s just about to leave the hospital and get some much-needed rest.

At the last second, he gets called to the ICU where he attended to a young man that had just suffered a major heart attack. The man needed urgent medical attention as his heart rapidly deteriorated.

Han’s first reaction was frustration. He was this close to going home, until this young man altered his plans. Then, Han looked up to see around 20 family members in the room, all of them waiting for the young man who’d just had a heart attack. Han learned that the man was in excellent health before the incident, a great shock to the entire family.

Seeing so many people care for one person touched Han in ways he didn’t see coming. He quickly saw the young patient as a son, husband, father, and brother, desperately fighting for his life, instead of just another face needing medical care.

This experience changed his outlook in an instant. At that moment, caring for patients became more than just a job for Han. It was his moral and professional duty to care for this man.


A Possible Solution to Burnout

Han says this moment changed his opinion of burnout. He started reflecting on the paradox of the problem. Instead of assuming nurses need more time off, he says a change in perspective may be more effective, at least in the moment when nurses don’t have the luxury of going home.

“When I am nearing burnout, I find the solution is more philosophical than getting more rest or doing more hobbies. What we need is a reminder of meaningfulness, a restoration of faith.”

If you feel a wave of burnout or fatigue coming on at work, Han suggests:

  • Forming meaningful relationships with patients and their family members by taking the time to listen to their stories. Details matter when someone’s life is in your hands. It’s not just about helping them recover from disease, it’s about making your patients feel seen and heard.
  • Following up with patients, even if they are no longer in your care. For example, hearing that a patient is doing much better now that they’ve left the hospital may lift your spirits on the job, even if it’s no longer your job to look after them.
  • Reflecting on the most rewarding experiences of your career. Maybe it was the young patient you nursed back to health when you were just starting out, or an older patient suffering from a chronic condition that liked to tease you when you came into the room.
  • Think of your patients as human beings, instead of just stats on a chart. As the hours go by, these moments can help you fend off fatigue when nothing else seems to do the trick.

Han is quick to point out that this idea isn’t meant to replace restrictions on overtime and overwork. Nurses should still have time off to rest and maintain a proper work-life balance.

However, you can use these ideas to stay engaged on the floor when you’re nearing the end of a long day. If some of your colleagues are suffering from burnout, encourage them to focus on the more human aspects of the job.


Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.


  1. I am not impressed by this at all. Shouldn’t this be what we do at baseline as nurses? Shouldn’t this be the very most important thing that we do? Do our patients with the most family members get the most care? That ain’t right. And we don’t need a physician to tell nurses what to do. We got this.

  2. unfortunately as a former hospice nurse i was not allowed to grieve properly with at least 3 days bereavement time for my younger sister who had been bed ridden for at least 20ish years the morale was terrible the burnout signs were there already with blood pressure elevation which was new for me and chest pain which was not a heart attack i do believe that positive reinforcement with patients and families does help but it doesnt take the place of very poor management and management that treats some staff different with extended time off regardless if those staff had quit several times and come back and received several weeks off for their leisure..

  3. I don’t know about other nurses but I have always got to know my patients and their history their likes and dislikes. Why some are always on the bell calling for little things they could easily do for themselves and the ones who seem to never ring. I am guilty of staying late to make sure that an elderly patient who is due to have surgery the next day or a Pedi patient who is anxious for the same reason – we would play cards or talk, etc. until they felt better or fell asleep. Working too many shifts short-handed or under-staffed and this extra care does cause burnout especially when these people don’t make it time and time again. I am lucky I have a great support team at home who get it but not all nurses do. and for the doctors, they could easily sit and talk and share time with these patients. Before dishing out advice maybe they should walk a mile in the nurse’s shoes.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Become A Critical Care Nurse, They Said. It Will Be Fun, They Said

I am a proud, critical care nurse, and I have been in that specialty for the majority of my nursing career. Over the years...

17 Tricks to Make Halloween a Treat

Halloween is a fun and exciting time for children. They get to dress up as pirates, princesses and monsters, and receive an overwhelming amount...

Did you see it? –Utah Nurse Roughed Up, Arrested For Doing Her Job

Here's the thing -the head nurse at the University of Utah Hospital’s burn unit was professional and restrained when she told a Salt Lake...