By Michele Wojciechowski
Working as a nurse can be tough. Because nurses are so focused on patients, they may not see when they're experiencing burnout, and that can lead to problems with themselves or with being able to properly care for patients.
But there are ways to recognize burnout, counteract it, and cope with it, according to Sarah A. Delgado, MSN, RN, ACNP, a clinical practice specialist.
What are some tips for nurses so that they can prevent burnout?
The first step with burnout is to recognize when it's happening. Some signs of burnout include:
Feeling that you have to drag yourself to work, and that tasks at work take more energy than you can muster
Feeling irritable, critical, or cynical with coworkers
Having physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach pains or trouble sleeping
Nurses may try to dismiss these symptoms ... because they feel compelled to power through, no matter what. The truth is that recognizing and addressing burnout can actually be energizing; just realizing that you deserve to feel better is the first step toward positive change.
Coworkers can help each other call attention to burnout. If you notice someone is struggling, it may be worthwhile to check in and ask how they are doing. Burnout can be a team problem if it is pervasive on a unit because it's hard to come to work when the people you work with are dissatisfied, short tempered, or unable to sense the value of their work. So recognizing the symptoms and checking in with colleagues is an essential strategy.
Burnout is a complex phenomenon, and while there are self-care actions that nurses can take to address it, factors in the work environment contribute to burnout: Worrying that patient care is compromised by an inadequate staffing mix; feeling that administrators are not responsive to clinical issues; and poor communication among healthcare team members are examples of issues in the work environment that can led to the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of burnout.
Issues in the work environment are not insurmountable, but a single member of the environment cannot address all of these issues alone. If you are a nurse working in an unhealthy work environment that contributes to burnout, maybe create a New Year's resolution to talk to your colleagues about it. If you find that they share your feelings, there may be factors beyond your control contributing to the problem.
Consider forming a group and seeking support from management to identify specific steps toward a healthy work environment.
What are the best action steps you can take?
There is some evidence that meditation and mindfulness practices can significantly reduce anxiety and worry. There are resources online and applications to help learn these techniques.
Attending to the basics -- sleep, exercise, and nutrition -- also helps with the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion of burnout. Sometimes, it is easier to advise others on self-care than to take the time to do it for ourselves.
When you find yourself feeling relaxed and rested, think back to what you were doing at that time. Were you talking to a friend, exercising, drawing, spending time with family, reading a novel, or watching a movie? Being deliberate in engaging in the activities that bring joy can reduce the stress of burnout.
What kind of self-care should you do?
I think a key antidote to burnout is satisfaction in your work. There are some shifts that are so frustrating and so exhausting! Then there are also moments when you comfort a frightened family member, catch a change in a patient's condition, or hear 'thank you' from a colleague -- moments when you know your actions have a positive impact on someone else. Those moments are priceless. Keep a log or a journal by your bed, or create a note in your phone, with a list of your priceless moments as a nurse, and take time to re-visit them from time to time. The way you felt in those moments is as real and as powerful as the negative emotions.