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Six Common Causes of Nurse Burnout

Nurse Burnout. While in the past, this term may not have been very well known to people outside of the medical field, in the last two years, it has made its way to the forefront of not just news stories and publications. It is also widely discussed on video-sharing and social media platforms. In light of the global health crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic, the realities of overworked, over-stressed health care workers have become an enormous problem that is evident to health care workers and the general public. So, what exactly is nurse burnout? And how is this phenomenon affecting nurses, who are widely considered to be the backbone of most health institutions?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is categorized as an “occupational phenomenon” that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Professionals in any industry, from teaching to engineering, can suffer this kind of work-related exhaustion. However, nurses and other medical professionals face a greater risk of burnout due to their high-stress work environment. Nurse burnout is the state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion caused by sustained work-related stressors particular to nurses, such as long shifts, lack of support in the workplace, and increasing overall morbidity of clients. This phenomenon is vital to health care and society because burnout can affect a nurse on physical, emotional, and psychological levels, the consequences of which can then significantly impact client care.

Causes of Nurse Burnout

Nurse Shortages

There is a rapidly growing demand for nurses as the Baby Boomer generation, a demographically very large generation, is aging and becoming more in need of medical care. Also, the number of people dealing with chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, is increasing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for registered nurses will grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030. This demand on hospitals and outpatient settings, which are already understaffed, can lead to nurses becoming vastly overworked and contributing to burnout.

Increasing Demands Within the Job

In today’s health care climate, nurses have many roles that continually expand from the bedside to the waiting room to the boardroom. These unique demands can quickly cause an escalation in nurses’ stress levels. Nurses are not only at the frontlines of direct medical care; they also educate clients and advocate for their needs, along with continuously assessing and tending to the emotional well-being of both their clients and their families. Combined, these responsibilities all falling to one person can easily contribute to burnout. In addition, new technology and other major workplace changes can also contribute. 

Long Hours

Studies have shown that while many nurses work 12-hour shifts, there is evidence that too many of these long shifts can lead to burnout and job dissatisfaction when compared to nurses working shorter, eight-hour shifts.

Lack of Sleep

While chronic lack of sleep can be a considerable burnout risk for professionals in any industry, it particularly holds true for nurses. Working longer-than-normal hours, overnight shifts, and a lack of rest in between changes contribute to irritability and stress.

Lack of Support

Teamwork is essential when it comes to a supportive work environment in a health care setting. In the nursing profession, collaborative teamwork with colleagues, coupled with the support of management and other administration, are both key to providing a work environment conducive to the well-being of its employees. If a workplace lacks a culture of good teamwork and collaboration practices, burnout may be more prevalent there. Poor teamwork, characterized by factors such as conflict, inadequate communication, lack of cooperation, and peer bullying, may not only contribute towards an unappealing workplace, but in the case of nursing, may cause serious medical errors that could jeopardize lives. 

Emotional Strain from Patient Care

While many nurses would describe client care as one of the most rewarding aspects of nursing, it can also be the most draining. Nurses make connections with clients and can experience a deep feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment in caring for a client and helping them restore their health.  However, nurses working in critical care or end-of-life/hospice-type settings have emotional letdowns of dealing with lower recovery and higher mortality rates. All of this can lead to compassion fatigue and increased rates of burnout. Also, the number of patients each nurse has to care for is an enormous factor. Nurses with higher nurse-to-client ratios have a higher risk of burnout. Conversely, home health care nurses tend to experience less burnout because they offer one-on-one personalized care to one client at a time. In addition, home health care nurses often work in their communities, which means less travel time. They also tend to have flexible schedules, allowing them to pick shifts that best suit their lifestyles.

Understanding the common root causes of nurse burnout is the first step towards a healthier, more collaborative health care setting for nurses and clients. Check back as we dive into the signs and dangers of nurse burnout and ten great ways to treat and prevent it.

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