When Nurses Burn Out, What's Next?

Jun 28

We’ve talked a lot about nurse burnout on this blog, specifically how to prevent it, and what factors might contribute to nurse burnout. What we haven’t covered is what to do when you realize you’re already burned out.

One of the issues with nurse burnout is that it is easy to mistake as another issue like tiredness. When burnout becomes dangerous is when it starts to affect not just the way you care for your patients, but also the other relationships in your life.

So what do you do when you already have burnout?

Recognize the symptoms of nurse burnout

In her commentary piece “Nurse Burnout Isn’t Fatal: My Perspective,” Rachel, a Seattle area nurse, writes “Like many nurses, my symptoms of burnout began without warning. I had been an ICU nurse for four years, and while I thought feeling burned out was something that might eventually happen, it wasn’t quite on my personal radar yet.”

This experience isn’t uncommon for nurses. According to a study conducted by Kronos, 41% of nurses have considered leaving their careers due to burnout. So while the idea of nurse burnout may seem like the stuff of urban legends, it’s a very real danger for nurses, especially those who work in acute care.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of nurse burnout are typically more psychological than physical, so they are sometimes just interpreted as feeling like you need a break. Some nurse burnout symptoms might be the following:

  • Exhaustion. Nurses with burnout describe the exhaustion they feel as more than simply feeling tired at the end of their shift. In an article about burnout on Daily Nurse, Jennifer Buttaccio writes that exhaustion when you’re burned out is a “constant state of depletion… [you] have difficulty mustering up the stamina you need to stay attentive on the job. Furthermore, you’ll find it takes a long time to restore your energy reserves from one day to the next.” Being burned out in your nursing job is more than being tired; it’s a bone-deep exhaustion that can’t be fixed with a few good nights of sleep.
  • Anxiety about going to work. If you find your heart sinking every time you’re getting ready for a shift, and you dread seeing your patients, it may also be a sign you’re burned out. Like the point above, look for a more extreme reaction than normal. We all have times where we’re not excited to go to work, but if you find you’re feeling that way consistently, it may be time for a change.
  • Apathy. Rachel writes, “I constantly assumed the worst about everyone and everything. Showing compassion and giving people the benefit of the doubt was something I no longer did.” Psychology Today also refers to this as "depersonalization." If you find yourself getting constantly irritated with your patients and you no longer have any empathy for them, it could be a sign you’re experiencing nurse burnout.

Additionally, if you hear from trusted friends or family that your behavior or attitude has changed significantly in the past few weeks or months, you should take them seriously and consider that you might be experiencing burnout.

So you have all these symptoms. What happens next?

Dealing with Nurse Burnout

You may want to skip straight to quitting your job, but before you do, try a few alternate strategies.

First, take some time for self reflection. What’s causing you to feel dissatisfied and unhappy in your job? Is it the amount of patients? The company culture in your unit? Identifying what the source might be can give you some perspective on what changes you need to make to breathe new life into your career.

Try a new specialty

If you’ve been working in the ICU and are feeling burned out, you might consider trying an adjacent field like PACU or similar. Sometimes moving to a specialty close to where you’re working and taking on new duties may make a difference in how you feel about your day-to-day work. You can also pursue educational opportunities like getting another degree or certification.

Take some time away

While nurse burnout typically isn’t solved by taking an extra day of vacation, actively taking multiple days or even weeks off your work can make a huge difference and may help revitalize your attitude toward your job. Some nurses who feel burned out have actually taken leaves of several months to travel and mentally reset. If taking that much time to travel isn’t an option for you, even taking a few days and having a “staycation” may make a huge difference.

Talk to someone

Whether it’s seeing a therapist, trying out a career coach, or talking with a nurse who has experienced burnout, vocalizing that you’re having a tough time can help you work through the underlying issues causing your burnout, and may give you insight into how to overcome it.

As a last resort, find a new job

In some cases, burnout can’t be easily cured by something like a vacation or moving specialties — it may take finding a new job altogether. You can either choose to stay in your specialty at a new facility, or take the time to find something completely new. Some nurses even decide to pursue non-clinical positions within the healthcare industry, such as being a healthcare recruiter.

If you feel like it’s time to take the next step into finding a new career, we’d love to help. You can browse hundreds jobs on the Relode platform, or connect with one of our talent advisors who can help you take the next step in your career. Get started today!

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Molly Powers