World Mental Health Day 2019 - How to Deal with Nurse Burnout


Thursday 10th October 2019 marks World Mental Health Day—24 hours dedicated to education and awareness of mental health issues, alongside the advocacy against social stigma. Naturally, any nurse will have dealt with patients exhibiting varying mental health issues during the course of their careers, however, what is very often overlooked is the mental health of nurses themselves. So, in honour of World Mental Health Day, we think it is important to take a closer look at an issue that is affecting nurses across the globe on a daily basis.

Mental Health and Nurse Burnout in Australia

We often underestimate the stresses of modern nursing, but across Australia, in increasingly busy hospitals and clinics the impact of this pressure is taking its toll. The result; an alarming rise in the number of nurses succumbing to ‘nurse burnout’. This worryingly common condition has been defined in the healthcare industry as the deterioration of the physical, mental and emotional state of nurses caused by chronic overwork and a sustained lack of job fulfilment. 

Many nurses go into the profession for altruistic reasons, with a sharp focus and personal desire to help others. The rewards for this work can be immense, yet on the flip side, when things go wrong it can be an incredibly unforgiving profession. Dealing with death is a regular part of the job and the emotional strain of losing patients and assisting grieving families can become overwhelming. When coupled with the long and unsociable hours, it is no wonder many nurses fall victim to burnout.

In Australia, over half of all healthcare professionals are nurses. If even a small fraction of these nurses is suffering from nurse burnout and not seeking help, the impact on the system could be huge, with patient care and staff morale suffering as a result. Therefore, it is extremely important that nurses are able to recognise the symptoms of burnout in themselves and their colleagues. No matter how small the warning signs may seem, it’s crucial to listen to your body and be prepared to deal with those symptoms as quickly as possible. 

The most common symptoms to look out for are;

Physical and mental exhaustion:

Nurses work long, hard hours, and fatigue is to be expected. However, if you are constantly feeling exhausted, even on days off, you could be suffering from nurse burnout.

Depersonalisation:

When a nurse is suffering from exhaustion it is common for to become emotionally detached from work. Interactions with colleagues and patients may become curt, insensitive, or unprofessional. This can be an obvious sign of burnout and one more easily picked up by others.

Lack of job satisfaction:

The feeling of futility can be a symptom for many nurses in emergency units, but a general feeling of disillusionment with the profession can affect anyone that is suffering from nurse burnout syndrome. 

Given the stressful working environments most nurses find themselves in it can feel like a hard task to prevent or even address burnout symptoms. But there are many steps, both big and small, that nurses can take to ensure they look after their own health. These range from taking shorter and more regular breaks, seeking the help of colleagues, and trying to participate in more activities outside of the workplace. 

Self-Care for Professional Carers

When dealing with nurse burnout the subject of ‘self care’ comes up time and again. Nurses who are especially driven by the urge to help others may not be able to maintain a healthy distance between themselves and the demands of their nursing job. This results in the neglect of their own health and ultimately depleting the very emotional resources that help them care for patients. 

The good news, however, is that you can take small but effective steps in your daily routine to work on this. These include taking short breaks, especially during longer shifts, to recharge—even if it’s just with a quick cup of coffee. Before opening the door to that next patient, stop and take 5 to 10 slow, deep breaths to re-centre yourself and clear your mind. These mindfulness techniques can have a major, positive impact on your mental state throughout the day and help relieve feelings of burnout. 

Outside of the workplace it’s really important to have an activity that allows you to completely switch off from the stresses of the job. Making time to do things you enjoy will have a positive impact on your mind and body, helping you to return to work feeling refreshed and energised. Additionally, the importance of physical exercise cannot be underestimated here; those extra endorphins can do wonders for your feeling of self-worth. In addition to running, cycling and swimming, yoga in particular has been identified as an excellent reliever of stress.

As greater awareness of nurse burnout has spread in the healthcare industry, many hospitals have begun to take stronger steps to combat it, providing internal services such as helplines to support their staff and encourage a culture of openness among colleagues. When nurses feel they have supportive working relationships, this can greatly reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed and isolated. The stigma of suffering from burnout is no longer there and your colleagues are very likely to be an excellent source of support.

Australian nurses play a vital role in our healthcare system and it is important they are cared for in the same way we expect them to care for patients. In extreme cases of burnout, nurses are turning their backs on the profession—a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. That is why it is essential everyone recognises the causes and symptoms outlined above and knows the best ways to deal with nurse burnout. 

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