Recognizing & Coping With Nursing Burnout

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.

Nurses are often compassionate by nature. After all, one of the reasons you may have chosen nursing is to help people. But nursing can be a demanding career and at some point, you may find your wide-eyed enthusiasm for the profession is fading.

Although everyone occasionally has a day when they are less than thrilled with their job, if you’re feeling unfulfilled most days, you may be starting to burnout. Nursing burnout involves feeling emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. Simply put, you may feel as if you have nothing more to give.

Why Does Nursing Burnout Occur?

Healthcare burnout, sometimes also referred to as compassionate fatigue, can affect nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals. So how do you go from an empathic nurse to someone who feels drained?

Burnout in healthcare usually happens gradually. It can develop for different reasons and often is caused by a combination of factors. For example, maybe you’re always working short-staffed or have a supervisor who is unsupportive when issues arise.

For other nurses, burnout may occur due to being overloaded with traumatic and sad situations. If you watch people suffer long enough and don’t find healthy ways to deal with it, it can take its toll.

Dealing with critical patients, upset family members and life and death situations can be stressful. Nurses who provide bedside care are especially at risk for becoming burned out. Also, many hospitals have moved to 12-hour shifts, which may make scheduling easier, but it can increase burnout. According to a survey conducted by The Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, the percentage of nurses reporting burnout increased as their shift length increased.

Signs of Burnout

Nursing burnout can have an effect on your job performance, satisfaction, and your life away from work. It can also affect your overall well being. Some of the signs of nursing burnout include the following:

  • Dreading the thought of going to work: Everyone has days they would rather do something other than going to their job. But if you are always dreading going work, there may be a problem.
  • An increase in physical ailments: Burnout can cause an increase in physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach problems.
  • Calling in sick a lot more often: A sick day here and there is not unusual, but using all your sick time, when you are not physically sick can be a sign of burnout.
  • Feeling bored: Burnout can sometimes go hand in hand with boredom. If you feel bored, you may find you’re just going through the motions at work.
  • Becoming easily annoyed at work: Nurses who suffer from burnout may find they become frustrated more easily with patients, co-workers, and visitors.
  • Decreased compassion: If you notice you are getting increasingly cynical and are feeling detached from your patients, it could be a sign of burnout.

Dealing with Nursing Burnout

If you think you may be suffering from nursing burnout, don’t ignore the problem. It’s not likely to just go away. Nurses who are burned out may feel stressed, unfulfilled, and depressed. In addition, it’s hard to do your best work if you feel burnt, which means the patients suffer. Nobody wins if you bury your head in the sand and don’t deal with the issue. Consider some of the suggestions below for dealing with nursing burnout.

Identify the problem. 

Do a little soul searching. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself what is bothering you the most. Is the problem your specific place of employment? Do you need a new challenge? Are you tired of bedside care? Once you figure out the reasons for how you feel, you make some changes.

Consider your options. 

One great aspect of the nursing profession is there are lots of different things you can do with a nursing license. In addition to providing direct patient care, there is discharge planning, education, case management, infection control and many other specialties. Some specialties may require additional education, certifications, or training.

Talk it over. 

Some nurses are afraid to talk to anyone at work about how they feel, but talking it over may help you make the changes you need. Consider speaking to your supervisor or and an employee assistance counselor who may be able to help.

Look for new opportunities. 

Are there opportunities to move into another department, work as a travel nurse, or go back to school for an advanced degree? Sometimes a new challenge can help you feel revitalized.

Take care of yourself. 

It may sound like a no-brainer, but not everyone takes care of themselves, which can make you more susceptible to burnout. Make time for exercise, eat healthy, and try to get enough sleep. Learn healthy ways to relax, such as yoga, meditation, or listening to music.

Take action. 

Once you figured out the problem and have come up with a solution, take action. Whether it’s reducing your work hours, or pursuing a new specialty, you need to make it happen.

Find a balance. 

While you’re at work, it’s great to be 100 percent focused on your job, but you have to learn to leave work at work. Finding a balance between your work and home life is essential.

Keep perspective. 

Some situations nurses deal with are heartbreaking. Remember, you can’t fix all situations, and you can’t control bad patient outcomes. But there are also instances where you made a difference during a patient’s toughest days. Learn to let go of what you can’t control and focus on the fact you can go home at the end of the day knowing you did your best.

Share your thoughts on this important issue in the comments section below.

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.



  1. I’ve been a practicing RN since 1974. (46 years) My first 20 years were in ICU. My happiest 5 years in ICU were freelancing with 2 Agencies that provided critical care staffing in south Florida. I had a few hospitals/medical centers I would go to and the staff treated me well, as one of them. I never lacked for work. I relocated and joined a healthcare system where I finished out my ICU days; I’ve been with them for 38+ years. After that came 5 years as a Clinical Performance Improvement Specialist which opened me up to another side of nursing: focus groups, medical record audits, JCAHO prep, system-wide policies and procedures…. My last 21 years have been in outpatient Gastroenterology with duties changing every few years as our facilities practices change. My entire career has been within the confines of large hospitals and medical centers. Nursing is a great springboard into other areas of nursing practice. Burnout is real. Be gentle with yourself–make spa days at home, light candles, meditate, journal. If you don’t like what you’re doing, DON’T do it. Change to another area. Try an agency if you have the freedom so you can sample what the culture is like at different places. I’m tuckered out now and will retire in January. Maybe I’ll write a book….

    • Nurse Nancy, what a career you have had! Congratulations on all of your hard work and dedication. I also graduated from nursing school in ’74 and my main nursing run was 22 years in the ER. Got burned out and “retired” for the first time. Fast forward 24 years and I return to nursing. Getting my BSN finally at age 68, just because I want to for my own sake. Wished I would have worked part-time during the hiatus. It is hard to get hired after a long gap.
      I think you should definitely write about nursing; if not a book, then maybe an article for a journal? You must have a lot of worthwhile information to share with new nurses! Good luck! Nurse til I die, Marcy.

  2. I have been a nurse for over 30 years. Burnout is for real. The good thing about nursing is there is all kinds of different areas of nursing you can do. If your burned out, move on.

  3. Great article. Unfortunately, I’ve been suffering from this for a few years now. Just celebrated 36 years in the profession – hard to believe that this time has passed. I believe Henry Ford would be proud of “the mass production” our health care system has turned into. But for those of us at the bedside, it’s heartbreaking. I encourage my younger colleagues to get back to school for advanced degrees.

  4. I believe Nursing burnout is a very real and common phenomenon. As a result of the nursing shortage, there are not many health care organizations that are properly staffed with Nurses. Generally Nurse Managers or front-line supervisors have little or no control over staff and usually have to beg for, cheat and steal staff just to be able to provide safe care. (or at least has been my experience). As promoters of wellness Nurses may exhaust their toolbox of stress management skills and fall into the depression, frustration and dissatisfaction with the profession. Sadly, many leave or want to leave for better pay or better work environments

  5. Thank you for this article. Nursing burnout is a very important topic which must be addressed. The suggestions you mentioned for dealing with nurse burnout is so important. Nurses are sometimes overwhelmed which can cause them to not perform tasks with the care and detail that’s required. Before entering the medical field, it should be required that students understand the signs of burnout and how to overcome them. With long hours and the possibility of having to deal with a variety of patients and coworkers, the nursing profession is one of the most challenging. Our nursing school in Miami, FL, Sovereign School of Nursing, is working to prepare students for the possibility of burnout and how to deal with it. This article is a great resource.

  6. I know I was burnt out when I was laid off my last job. After 11 years with the same toxic company that blamed the nurses for everything, regardless how long or hard we worked, the management and doctors pit all levels of nurse against each other. Feelings of being overwhelmed, incompetent and total exhaustion for me it was a blessing to get laid off. I retired after that job, and have heard so many of the same things from other nurses.

  7. It’s just not about the actual stress of the job, it is also the expectation of 24-36 actual hours in front of the computer to do education that was mandatory yet the facilities or hospital only pay for 4-10 hrs if your lucky and then they tell you have to come in on your days off to complete them. On top of working your 12+hrs. No social life as a hospital nurse.

  8. Great Article ! Very important for Healtcare Professionals and their Family Members to read. As a nurse I have felt like I needed to “ do it all.” Many times during my career I would not reach out for support. It helps if peers or families understand what to look for and know how to help in a constructive way.
    Thanks For the Article
    Michelle RN

  9. I was on the Workplace Bullying team at hospital in a large city. We gave slide presentations to units on request of their nurse manager. We ended up turning the 19 slides into a 60 slide online presentation with 30 slides of references. It became mandatory for all 6000 nurses to read. We left out of the slide show, in order not to alienate administration and lose their support, two inconvenient truths:

    -Most workplace bullying occurs from a higher position employee to a lower one, e.g., from a manager to a subordinate, or from a doctor to a nurse.
    -Having a civil workplace begins at the top; if your are being bullied and administration turns a blind eye, you need to leave. It won’t get better.

    Our training slideshow was mandatory for two years. It was never mandatory for doctors or administrators. Not long after I left, a news article showed up about problems with incivility and workplace bullying in our group of hospitals nationwide. I went into nursing with the attitude that the body is the temple of the soul; I advised my daughter not to go into the field.

  10. My wife is a nurse and was the Nurse manager for a 50 bed ALF with clients with mental and physical problems stemming from drug abuse, TBI, GSW, BAd luck in life. She was on call 24/7 and after 14 years that the company stated would hire another RN to assist. As the work load became increasing, she was tired, hated to go to the job she loved and the joy of working with the people at work. She quit. She has been a stay at wife for a while. After reading the article I believe she had nurse burn out. She will get a new job but now is happy being a wife.

  11. My work environment was horrendous. No support, understaffed, a lot of 13 hour + shifts. It was expected that you’d have overtime each check.

    After two years of talking to Supervisors, HR, & Management nothing changed, so I did. Start the new job on the 4th.


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