By Jennifer Bunn, RN
As a registered nurse in rural nursing for more than 20 years, I have found myself on the brink of burnout more than once. Long hours, short staffing, and working in a small town where everyone knows everyone else can be stressful, to say the least. How can nurses recognize when they are teetering on the edge and what should nurses do if they feel that they might be at risk?
Know The Risks
First of all, it’s important to understand what burnout is. Burnout occurs when nurses, as a result of cumulative stress, become exhausted (physically, mentally and emotionally), resulting in reduced effectiveness at work and a sense of depersonalization. The workplace of today contributes to burnout due to constant understaffing, new technology, and sicker patients. Nurses who feel overworked and undervalued become disillusioned with their job, may suffer frequent illness and/or absenteeism, may be irritable and may withdraw from colleagues, family and friends. Nurses suffering from burnout are at higher risk for addiction, depression and anxiety.
A Common Problem
All nurses experience disillusionment with their career at one time or another; the difference with burnout is that burnout pervades all parts of the nurse’s life. After almost 20 years of nursing, I began to experience some of the symptoms myself, becoming less and less eager to go to work every day. I felt “stuck” and my physical health suffered. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job – I have always loved nursing and always will- it was that I felt my job no longer loved me back. How did I overcome these feelings? Luckily for me (and my patients) I recognized the symptoms and what they signified- it was time for a change. Here are some of the strategies I used to pull myself up and out:
- Exercise I was coming home exhausted and staying that way during my days off. I decided to try exercise, both to improve my energy levels and to force myself to get out of the house. Skeptical at first, I soon discovered that exercising rejuvenated me, physically and mentally. I began to sleep better and woke up feeling more refreshed than I had in a long time. I exercised at home on the days I couldn’t get to class.
- Compare notes It turned out I wasn’t the only one in my workplace feeling this way. Some of my colleagues were experiencing some of the same symptoms. Merely naming and talking about our feelings was cathartic for all of us. We all talked to our supervisor about some of the issues we felt were adding to our stress level. Did our manager fix everything? No, but she did make some small changes, which at least made us feel as though we had been listened to and heard.
- Sleep hygiene getting adequate rest while working shift work and raising a family can be exceedingly difficult. It’s best if you can work one shift (strictly days or night) rather than switching back and forth from nights to days and back again. After 20 years of working shift work, I finally dropped my full-time position and worked strictly on a casual basis so that I had some control over my schedule.
- Talk to a professional There’s no shame in asking for help. Help can come from many avenues- a clergy member, counselor, or family doctor can help you to sort through your feelings. I spoke with my doctor, who advised some time off to get a handle on my physical health and think about what changes I needed to make to start to enjoy my work again. Many employers have an employee assistance program in place and offer free counseling, which I did not take advantage of but was there if I needed it.
If you feel as though you may be on the slippery slope to burnout, take some time to try to determine how you feel and what may be causing you stress, both at work and at home. Talk to someone who can understand how you are feeling, whether it’s your boss, a friend at work, or your doctor. Come up with a plan to address some of the issues that you feel may be contributing to how you are feeling. If all of these actions fail, consider finding a new direction in nursing, such as education, management, or a new position with better hours. Be kind to yourself and care for yourself as you have cared for so many others- you deserve it!