Scrub Life

You're Not Alone. Nurse Burnout & Work Stress is REAL

mind & body | 5 min read

As the world remains focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to talk about another serious reality – nurse burnout. In 1974, American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger first used the term “burnout” to describe the result of severe stress experienced by people working in “helping” professions. Sounds familiar, right? Working on the frontlines, today’s nurses continue to care for extraordinarily acute patients with absolute professionalism, dignity and grace. However, due to the intense and prolonged nature of this global health crisis, the nursing profession is stressed, struggling and deeply hurting. The time is now, because if left untreated, burnout can lead to serious outcomes.

risks of nurse burnout & stress

The healthcare industry is no stranger to stress. Being responsible for life and death decisions and interventions inherently makes this line of work prone to burnout. The fast-paced, high-stress work environment, long shifts, physicality of patient care, nonstop critical thinking and lack of sleep, it can quickly become a perfect storm for burnout. Then add COVID to the mix! Over the past year, nurses are witnessing true human suffering and fear, they are extending themselves when family members are not allowed at a patient’s bedside and are experiencing codes, mortality and loss each and every shift.

symptoms of nurse burnout

If you’re a nurse or know a nurse, it’s important to know the early signs of burnout and compassion fatigue. Although it can look and feel different to each person, there are some common symptoms. First you might feel: 

  • emotional exhaustion
  • feeling physically tired
  • numb
  • anxious
  • depleted of energy and compassion

Having a consistently negative outlook and being easily irritable or short-tempered are other signs. Or it may manifest in calling out sick more often, dreading work, withdrawing from friends and family and avoiding interactions with patients.

why is being a nurse so stressful

To the public, nurses are often the symbol of humanism, empathy and trust. And although the admiration is appreciated, nurses are human beings who have limits – physically, mentally and emotionally. To that point, an important concept to bring into this conversation is compassion fatigue. Simply put, it’s when a person absorbs the emotional stressor(s) of another to a point that they in turn, carry secondary and/or traumatic stress themselves. Examples may include being regularly exposed to upsetting stories or experiencing the loss of a beloved patient.

overcoming healthcare burnout

We are incredibly grateful for all nurses and what they have endured over the past year. Be kind to yourself because the work you have done is nothing short of inspiring. As a token of our appreciation, we have compiled the below tips and recommendations to prevent nurse burnout, compassion fatigue and work stress.

1. self-care

Healthcare professionals are notorious for prioritizing everyone else in their life - family, friends, patients and coworkers - leaving little, if any time at all, for themselves. Like the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” you must care for yourself so you can best care for others. It’s not being selfish, it’s understanding that you have a finite amount of time, energy and resources. Self-care comes in all shapes and sizes, from exercise, mindfulness and hobbies to getting organized, journaling and dedicated quiet time.

2. recognize triggers

Personal experiences, family values religious and cultural beliefs all impact how we view and interact in the world. Take a moment and self-reflect what upsets you most, what triggers raw emotions. It could be situations, events, specific dates or times of the year. Having this clarity will help you identify and address early signs of work-related stress.

3. get enough sleep

When struggling with burnout, prioritize sleep. Our bodies and minds need that time to unwind, destress and heal. Create an environment that is conducive to falling and staying asleep. Some suggestions include blackout curtains, guided imagery apps, soft music or a weighted blanket. Failure to get adequate sleep (7-9 hours each day), will further deteriorate your physical health, mental agility and emotional stability.

4. set boundaries

As a nurse we know it’s hard to leave the job at the door because patients and coworkers often make a profound imprint on your heart. However, to help curb burnout, you need to create clear boundaries between work and personal life. Schedule personal time off when you need to recharge, avoid checking work emails at home, say ‘no’ to taking on extra shifts, etc. Also, things like medical drama shows or movies can hit a nerve or trigger a difficult memory, so opt for a comedy instead. Laughter never hurts either.

5. change your environment

When a flower isn’t thriving, you don’t blame the flower… you change its environment by placing it in direct sunlight, watering it more often or adding nutrients to the soil. YOU are that flower. If your current work situation isn’t bringing your joy or excitement it may be time to seriously think about making a change. That’s what makes nursing so great, ask your manager to change shifts, shadow another unit or interview for a different specialty. It doesn’t hurt to try.

6. take breaks

Being “on” all day is exhausting and unrealistic. You encourage your coworkers to take their break, so why don’t you do that for yourself? It all goes back to self-care. Having downtime to take a breath, go to the bathroom, drink some water and eat a quick bite isn’t being egocentric, it’s attending to personal well-being. We KNOW it’s hard and awkward, but you have to have your own back on this one.  

7. identify your circle

Avoiding or addressing burnout often comes down to having a strong support system. Identify people in your life (personal and professional) that truly care about you, listen to understand rather than to respond, guide and mentor, can empathize, understand and/or make you laugh. We’re calling those people, your inner circle. Please reach out to them, they are your biggest fans and shoulder to lie on when you need it most.

focus on you

Our hope is that while reading this article, you take that first step in focusing on your health and well-being because you are so many things to so many people. Chose yourself, L-O-V-E yourself.


American Nurses Association (2013). What is Nurse Burnout? Posted by Oretha Johnson via

Bhutani, J., Bhutani, S., Balhara, Y.P., & Kalra, S. (2012). Compassion fatigue and burnout amongst clinicians: a medical exploratory study. Indian J Psychol Med. 34(4):332-337.

Jennings, B. M. (2008). Work Stress and Burnout Among Nurses: Role of the Work Environment and Working Conditions. In: Hughes RG, editor. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); Chapter 26. Available from:

Beckers Hospital Review (2019). 5 signs of nurse burnout. Posted by Mackenzie Beam via

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