All jobs come with some degree of stress, but nurses are subjected to an extremely high level of it. In fact, nurses’ naturally high-stress jobs, in which they often have to make decisions that will have huge effects on patients’ lives, can often lead to burnout. In this article, we’ll go over what nurse burnout is, how it relates to stress, and tips for handling it healthily.

What is nurse burnout?

Nurse burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It’s caused by long-term exposure to work-related stressors that include working long hours, caring for patients with poor outcomes, and constantly making high-pressure on-the-spot decisions. Specifically, caring for more than four patients, working for more than nine hours, and working in specialties like the Emergency Department and ICU put nurses at a higher risk of developing burnout. If it’s not treated or addressed, nurse burnout can lead to bigger issues: feelings of hopelessness, negativity, and cynicism, and even mental health disorders like depression.

Oftentimes, the first warning sign of nurse burnout is a feeling of being detached and disengaged from your job and patients. It’s very important to address nurse burnout at this point, before it becomes more severe.

How is nurse burnout related to stress?

The constant stress and demands of nursing lead to nurse burnout. In other words, nurse burnout is a consequence of long-term, chronic stress. Therefore, it’s important to treat the underlying stress as well as the symptoms of burnout in order to avoid experiencing it again. Being able to effectively and healthily cope with stress is a valuable skill to have throughout life, and it can be especially helpful for nurses.

What are the causes of nurse burnout?

  • Working long hours
  • Chronic lack of sleep
  • High-stress environment
  • Lack of support
  • Emotional strain

What are the symptoms of nurse burnout?

  • Persistent fatigue, even after getting a good night’s sleep
  • Feelings of frustration and/or resentment
  • Lack of enthusiasm regarding work
  • Compassion fatigue – feeling cynical and detached from patients
  • Feeling under-appreciated and overworked

What are the negative outcomes that come from nurse burnout?

  • Lower quality of patient care
  • High nurse turnover
  • Increased levels of hospital mortality

How to Handle Nurse Burnout

Now that we’ve covered the definition of nurse burnout, its relationship with stress, and its causes, symptoms, and outcomes, here are some helpful suggestions that should provide relief for those experiencing nurse burnout.

  • Take your breaks. Although it may feel like you should stay and help at work, if you don’t take regular days off as well as breaks throughout the day, you’ll be much more susceptible to burnout. It’s also a good idea to spend your breaks in a productive manner by using them to take care of your physical or mental health. For example, you could enjoy a guided meditation or a quick yoga flow on your lunch hour. You could also take a walk outside, connect with loved ones or pets, or do other activities that help to calm you and relieve stress. This way, you’ll go back to work feeling more refreshed and capable.
  • Stop and breathe in the moment. Oftentimes when we begin to get overwhelmed, we forget to breathe properly. Our breathing becomes shallow, and it can make the situation at hand feel even more taxing. But if you take a few moments to breathe deeply and consider strategies to handle the situation effectively, you can keep yourself from spiraling out of control.
  • Consider getting further education or certifications. Nurse burnout is often accompanied by a feeling of not being able to accomplish anything worthwhile. But going back to school and potentially gaining knowledge that can open up additional career paths or set you up for a raise can be very fulfilling.
  • Use healthy coping skills. It’s all too easy to reach for junk food on breaks and alcohol or other substances when you get off work. But although these vices may be helpful in the short-term, they’ll only make things worse in the long-term. It’s a great idea to develop healthy coping mechanisms that you can use at work and after work to decompress and decrease stress. Some common ones include enjoying a healthy snack, doing breathing exercises, journaling, drawing, spending time with loved ones and pets, and connecting with nature. For more information on healthy coping skills, take a look at the articles found on BetterHelp.com
  • Consider changing specialties. If you work in a particularly high-stress department like the emergency room or ICU, it might be worth it to change specialties, especially if you’ve been experiencing nurse burnout.
  • Regularly engage in self-care. Self-care consists of deliberate activities meant to maintain physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. It’s a good idea to self-reflect and assess your current state of wellbeing in all areas. Where do you have opportunities for growth? Then it’s time to identify helpful interventions and activities in each area, and work them into your life.
  • Reach out for support and help as needed. You don’t have to deal with nurse burnout on your own. Don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a counselor or therapist, and be sure to have a solid support system in place as well. Burnout can be overcome, and sometimes you just need some help along the way.

Main Takeaways

Nurse burnout, which is a state of complete physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, develops from frequent exposure to a high-stress work environment. It comes with symptoms like persistent fatigue, frustration, and a lack of enthusiasm and connection with work. Unfortunately, nurse burnout can lead to higher hospital mortality rates, lower quality of patient care, and increased nurse turnaround.

Handling nurse burnout involves taking all of your breaks and vacation days, implementing plenty of self-care and healthy coping strategies, and reaching out for help and support. Although nurse burnout can be challenging to work through, it is possible to get through it and begin to enjoy your career once again.


This article was contributed by Marie Miguel who has been a writer and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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