Nurse burnout is a growing problem in the medical profession in America and worldwide. Among healthcare professionals, nurses have a unique set of stressors. Often, however, they may be more reticent to ask for help. Since a steady workforce of nurses providing for the healthcare needs of patients is so critical to a healthy society, nurse burnout and how to get help for it are important topics of discussion.
Unique Stressors of the Nursing Occupation
What makes the stressors of the nursing occupation unique? Like doctors, nurses are seen as nurturing, caring, and often going to extraordinary measures to help those who come to them for care. Among their patients are those who have experienced trauma, violence, natural disaster, accidents, and the sudden onset of life-threatening conditions.
Doctors and nurses are often the last hope for individuals who may otherwise die without immediate medical attention. But while doctors see patients for some time and then go on to other duties, nurses work long hours providing nursing care to patients. Often their shifts overlap days, which can contribute to chronic exhaustion. (This is not to minimize the stressors that doctors face every day. In the medical profession, both doctors and nurses face unique challenges and daily stressors that could be detrimental to their physical and mental health.)
As for nurses, they want to put on the best face for their patients, so they tend to ignore potential signs that they may be experiencing nurse burnout. Instead, they seek to reassure their patients, by calming their fears and ministering to their needs (while often pushing their own to the background).
Statistics for Nurses and Mental Health/Substance Abuse
Substance use disorders in nurses occur at a rate of 10 percent, which is the same for the general population, according to a study published in 2013. Other studies indicate more troubling findings, however, including drinking or drug use while at work (48 percent), and nurses saying they felt their work competence was negatively affected by alcohol or drug use (40 percent). Meanwhile, a 2020 study found 21.6 percent of nurses surveyed experienced substance abuse.
A 2021 survey by the American Nurses Foundation found that about 40 percent of nurses reported feelings of depression, up from the about 30 percent of nurses who said they experienced depression the year before.
The effects of nurse burnout include a negative impact on the quality of care that nurses provide to their patients. Also, turnover rates for the nursing profession increase because of nurse burnout.
Nurse Resistance to Seeking Help
Nurses are the most frequently seen medical professionals by patients assigned to their care. The causes of nurse burnout are not hard for others to see. Working long hours and often neglecting their self-care, nurses are known to continue to push through arduous schedules, back-to-back shifts, and days without sufficient rest.
As a helping profession, they are a calming and comforting presence to those they care for and may overlook causes of burnout in their everyday life. Worse, they are much more likely to be resistant to seeking help for burnout, stress, fatigue, and dependence upon negative coping methods such as substance abuse. Nurses experiencing mental health disorders like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression are also less likely to seek treatment.
Mental Health Needs Among Nurses
One form of nursing burnout is called “compassion fatigue.” This is characterized by physical, spiritual, and emotional exhaustion that is deep and accompanied by often acute emotional pain. Compassion fatigue can also manifest as depression, PTSD, anxiety, and substance abuse. These issues typically do not go away on their ownrequire professional treatment to overcome.
By ignoring the signs and symptoms of burnout in nursing, nurses may unwittingly be on a path toward further negative consequences. Thus, the mental health needs of nurses should be at the heart of programs devoted to improving their overall health.
Stress and Burnout in Nursing
Studies have found that, in the nursing profession, nurse burnout may be more prevalent in the critical care environment. Due to the large numbers of cases critical care nurses see, their work overload, the need to make rapid decisions, and deliver medical care quickly, they are at increased risk for developing PTSD. Yet even though they’re at higher risk, they may be unable to cope with the signs of PTSD due to the chronic work stress they experience.
One difficulty nurses mention is how difficult it is to measure their level of stress. Anecdotally, nurses say that they get used to everyday stress and know they have a tolerance for a certain amount. They try not to exceed that, believing that it’s the amount of stress that’s negative, not stress itself. Yet chronic stress can still negatively impact the body and mind.
Some nurses may have greater resilience to stress burnout than others, perhaps because they recognize the signs and use effective coping mechanisms. This, in turn, increases their resilience. Increasing awareness of job-related nursing stresses and developing and implementing remedies to help enhance effective coping skills will go a long way toward improving nurses’ lives, reducing nurse turnover, and improving quality patient care.
Nurses can benefit from learning effective stress reduction techniques, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and participating in nursing-specific support groups. Practicing meditation, mind-body techniques that include yoga and breathwork, and developing a deeper sense of spirituality can also prove beneficial.
Substance Misuse Among Nurses
Burnout in nursing is also associated with increased misuse of substances of abuse as a coping mechanism. Whether the substance abuse takes the form of drinking too much or taking prescription drugs or experimenting with harder drugs, nurses are more at risk of becoming dependent upon or addicted to substances.
Nurses may, for example, drink to numb the day’s stresses or to blot out painful experiences of seeing their patients suffering. They may resort to drugs to enable them to maintain a non-stop pace during incredibly long shifts. The consequences of such substance misuse can be long-lasting, requiring professional help to overcome.
Steps to Seeking Care as a Nurse
Admitting that they need help to overcome challenges like substance abuse or a mental health disorder can be harder for nurses. It’s not easy for anyone. Yet nurses, as health professionals, need to know that they will benefit more when they seek care through a group that understands the nursing culture. These groups include the following:
- American Nurses Association
- American Psychiatric Nurses Association
- American Holistic Nurses Association
How to Get Help
Here are some steps nurses can take to seek care for causes of nurse burnout.
- If in crisis, immediately call or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK)
- Nurses can practice good self-care. This includes eating right and not skipping meals, getting enough sleep each night (a minimum of seven hours, even though nursing shifts may make this impractical nightly), and engaging in regular physical exercise. Even a brisk walk during a break will help improve cardiovascular functions, boost endorphins that elevate mood, and provide rest from the stresses of the day.
- To deal with a mental health issue or substance abuse brought on or exacerbated by nurse burnout, nurses can be proactive by contacting the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at their workplace.
- Contact one’s healthcare provider to learn what options are available for online or telehealth services.
- Take part in an employer’s mental health screening program and arrange for subsequent treatment and support services. Recognizing that help is readily available can motivate action.
We’re Here to Help
At FHE Health, our experts specialize in evidence-based, compassionate care and treatment programs to help nurses combat nurse burnout and associated mental health and substance misuse issues. Contact us to learn more about how we can help. Our staff is always available 24 hours a day to provide confidential information about mental health and substance use treatment programs, as well as resources and links to obtain additional assistance.
Nurse burnout doesn’t have to end a career or cause unnecessary suffering. We may be able to help. Contact us today at 1-844-299-1618 for more information about treatment options.