The biggest union of registered nurses in the United States — National Nurses United — describes nurse burnout as "physical, mental and emotional exhaustion." Nurse burnout leads to job dissatisfaction and affects patient outcomes.
A survey conducted in 2012 revealed that around one-third of nurses reported an emotional exhaustion score (a calculation used to measure psychological fatigue) of 27 or more, recognized by medical professionals as "high burnout." In a separate study, 49 percent of registered nurses under the age of 30 experienced significant levels of exhaustion.
But why are so many nurses at breaking point? And how are health care providers dealing with this issue?.
What Causes Nurse Burnout?
Various organizational factors influence nurse burnout, including the length of time spent at work. In one study, registered nurses in Michigan who worked 12-hour days reported higher stress levels than registered nurses who worked eight-hour shifts.
As a nurse’s role continually expands from the bedside to the waiting room to the boardroom, the stress and busyness of the profession can equally escalate. Nurses are on the frontlines of direct medical care, medical education for others, advocating for patient needs, and comforting patients and their families. Combined, these responsibilities can easily result in nurse burnout.
A major factor involved in maintaining high-quality, multi-faceted care is becoming familiar with patients and their families. Making time for emotionally taxing conversations with patients and families adds a physiological affliction to a nurse’s already chaotic shift. However, to keep patient care as the priority, it’s necessary for nurses to invest in each patient’s well-being. Regrettably, this type of attentive care can leave the nurse’s own well-being at stake.
Stressors differ depending on the location, too. In a study conducted in Iran, 48 percent of nurses cited tackling various roles as the biggest cause of stress in the workplace, followed by role duality and job environment. In an Indian study, 78 percent of nurses said that not finishing their work on time caused significant stress, followed by backaches due to standing for long hours, and staff shortages.
In the United States, the number one cause of stress among nurses is teamwork — pressures associated with working together as a group, such as poor communication, conflict, and tension. This was followed by stressors linked to job circumstances, like employer demands and work satisfaction. Moreover, nurse shortages are becoming an epidemic, predicted to only worsen by 2025.
In addition to these common stressors, nurses may encounter burnout due to their innate desire to put others before themselves. Many nurses feel it’s their calling to care for others first, paralleling the profession with selflessness. Unfortunately, when nurses are primarily motivated by their desire to help others, as opposed to the enjoyment of the work itself, it’s easier for them to become burned out. Researchers found that nurses who were driven by the lifestyle the profession provided and the opportunity to interact with patients are more satisfied with their employer and less likely to leave their job.
The Dangers of Nurse Burnout
Regardless of the cause, nurse burnout has far-reaching consequences. Evidence from the American Nurses Association suggests that stress from long hours at work, rotating shifts and infrequent breaks slows down reaction times, reduces motivation, and increases errors — all of which can affect patient care. Nurse burnout could even increase rates of infection in patients. For example, in one Pennsylvania hospital, researchers showed an association between nurse fatigue from increased workloads and urinary tract and surgical site problems in patients.
Nurse burnout also affects patient satisfaction levels. A recent study found a positive correlation between patient happiness and nurses who experienced adequate administrative support and had good relations with doctors and other staff. Also, these nurses were less likely to report burnout.
Recently, a study done by Mercer, a global healthcare staffing consultant, found that as America’s population continues to age, 2.3 million new healthcare workers will need to be hired by 2025 to satisfy the demand. The scarcest healthcare position? Home health aides and nurses. Also by 2025, Mercer foresees a deficit of 446,300 home health aides and a combined shortage of 125,000 nursing assistants and nurse practitioners. If nurse burnout and well-being continue to be overlooked, these calculated estimations will become reality.
Mercer senior consultant, Jason Narlock, explains, “Few other industries are racing the clock to find a future-ready workforce like today’s healthcare administrators.” A combination of rapidly retiring nurses and a dismal amount of new graduates is contributing to the growing shortage.
"When there are fewer nurses available to handle a bigger volume of patients, it adversely affects patient outcomes because of nursing burnout," continues Narlock. "Patients are more likely to be readmitted after 30 days of first being seen. They can also be at a higher risk of a hospital-acquired infection."
How to Measure Well-Being
Many organizations are investing in methods that measure nurse wellness. For example, healthcare providers carry out regular surveys that monitor the well-being of their staff. These anonymous questionnaires assess positive mental health and stress levels, providing researchers with accurate insights into the psyche of nurses. Other ways to track nurse well-being include focus groups and regular reviews. However, nurses might be reluctant to discuss the pressures of the job with a senior member of staff.
Occupational stressors are commonplace in a medical environment and range from staff shortages to irregular breaks. Now, healthcare providers are measuring nurse well-being in order to tackle the factors that affect patient care. There are various tools that make this process easier.
The Well-Being Index, developed by Mayo Clinic, is an online self-assessment tool that allows nurses to share their job experiences through a safe, anonymous platform. Find out how you can incorporate this effective tool into your medical facility.
See how the Well-Being Index works by checking out our FREE demo below.