Everything you need to know about nurse burnout.
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Everything You Need to Know about Nurse Burnout

Nurses dedicate their professional lives to helping others. This care often impacts their personal lives and wellness. Most of the time, nurses would say it’s for the better – the field of nursing is extremely fulfilling. However, institutions are seeing increased reports of the opposite. Staff shortages, increased responsibilities, governmental regulations, and other job factors have contributed to nurse burnout and overall distress.

Burnout, one of the six dimensions of distress, has many negative implications on both a personal and professional level. Professionally, burnout can hinder job performance, change how nurses view their role, and even put patients in danger. Personally, burnout affects demeanor, relationships, and overall quality of life.

This topic is taking over the healthcare industry and institutions are discovering the benefits and tactics behind measuring, monitoring, and taking the necessary steps to improve well-being.

What is Nurse Burnout?

Burnout affects approximately 38% of nurses per year.1

Burnout is one of the leading dimensions of distress and goes beyond feeling tired or experiencing a bad day at work. It is defined as emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It impacts nurses’ personal lives, the patients they take care of, and the organizations they work for. In fact, the World Health Organization has recently labeled burnout as an official medical diagnosis.

To put this statistic into perspective, nearly 4 out of 10 nurses will drive to work dreading their shift. Nearly 4 out of 10 nurses will experience an extreme lack of empathy while taking care of their patients. Nearly 4 out of 10 nurses will be dissatisfied with a profession that once brought them joy and purpose. These statistics on nurse burnout only scratch the surface.

Causes of Nurse Burnout

Long Work Hours

Study after study indicates that working a 12-hour shift is harmful to both nurses and patients. In a 2010 study among 53,846 nurses from six countries, specifically looking at work hours and how they impacted patient care, it was concluded that longer work hours directly correlated with a lower level of patient satisfaction. 2

Nurses consistently working 12-hour shifts are not only at risk for burnout but also for other dimensions of distress, such as severe fatigue and poor work-life integration. Working longer hours increases stress, which leads to poor performance and a decreased ability to provide top-notch patient care. Over time, this leads to exhaustion, burnout, and an increased risk of making a critical error; becoming a cyclical effect.

Poor Work Environments

Believe it or not, a poor work environment was cited as one of the top reasons for burnout.3 Nurses reporting a poor work environment as a main contributor to their burnout described management issues, poor leadership, and a lack of teamwork as their top stressors.

Greater Workloads

In addition to patient care, nurses wear several different hats within an institution. They are responsible for charting, patient care, follow up care, phone triage, and other administrative tasks. As institutions become more high-tech, and expectations to provide a higher level of care increases, their ability to focus on their core responsibilities becomes more difficult. This leads to frustration and the inability to complete their job to the standard they’d like.

Death and Sickness

Obviously this is part of the job in the nursing field. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take its toll and at times, become overwhelming. Taking care of sick patients day-in and day-out can eventually add up and cause burnout among nurses of all specialties.

Symptoms of Nurse Burnout

Physical Signs and Symptoms of Nurse Burnout

  • Exhaustion
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent illness and sickness
  • Headaches and muscle pain
  • Change in appetite
  • A noticeable difference in sleep habits
  • Among others

Emotional Signs and Symptoms of Nurse Burnout

  • Feelings of helplessness
  • A sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Detachment
  • Lack of motivation
  • Cynicism
  • Decreased career satisfaction

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms of Nurse Burnout

  • Withdrawn
  • Increased preference towards isolation
  • Poor judgment calls
  • Procrastination
  • Frustration
  • Substance abuse
  • Skipping work

The Effects of Nurse Burnout On Patient Care

Inadequate Standards of Patient Care

Exhausted, stressed-out nurses are more likely to make poor decisions at work. This is because stress can influence decision-making. Nurse burnout is also linked to higher rates of hospital-acquired infections. Forty-nine percent of registered nurses under the age of 30 and Forty percent of registered nurses over the age of 30 experience burnout 4

Poor Patient Engagement

A change in bedside manner is one of the first things to notice with burnout. Depersonalization. Lack of empathy. Insensitive. Lack of compassion. Cynicism. These are all common feelings a once vibrant nurse can display if they suffer from burnout. Nurses may seem short or even rude with patients, not offering as much guidance or being as helpful as they have been in the past.

Medical professionals who suffer from high levels of depersonalization are more likely to experience poor relationships with patients. This could influence a patient’s experience in a medical facility and even prevent people from seeking further medical treatment in the future.

Staff Shortages and High Rates of Turnover

As hospitals across the country experience staff shortages, nurses are expected to pick up more hours and even work overtime to solve the issue. Staff shortages leads to an increased patient-to-nurse ratio and evokes a whole host of negative implications.

In a study where data was collected from 10,184 surgical nurses from 210 hospitals across Pennsylvania, it was found that with each additional patient in a nurse-to-patient ratio, there was a 7% increase in the likelihood of dying within 30 days of admission. There was also a 7% increase in the odds of failure-to-rescue. 5

As nurses work with a higher patient-to-nurse ratio, the chances of patients getting infections, injured, delayed care, or sent home without adequate at-home care instructions also increases. This increases their chances of needing to stay in the hospital longer and return with complications. When nurses have fewer patients, they are more likely to intercept and prevent errors. In turn, all of these variables add up and are one of the main contributors to nurse burnout and staff shortages.

The Effects of Nurse Burnout on an Institution

Costly for the Organization

Turnover is extremely costly for the organization. Institutions spend millions of dollars every year in recruitment, training, and retention of employees. 6 As more healthcare employees experience distress and burnout, the costs continue to rise.

Negative Impact on Other Staff

Nurse burnout could have a detrimental impact on the entire workforce at a hospital. As burnout has a negative impact on personal habits and characteristics, it could harm relationships with team members. Consequently, nurse burnout could lead to strained relationships in the workplace and an uncomfortable working environment.

How To Address and Prevent Nurse Burnout

Prioritize Authentic Leadership

The key to preventing nurse burnout is on a leadership level. Leadership needs to be proactive when it comes to preventing nurse burnout.

Looking at new nurse graduates in Canada, studies found that both personal and organizational resources play a role in protecting new graduate nurses from burnout development and its negative health and work related outcomes. 7

Leadership that has an open-door policy provides the support that’s needed for creating a good team. It encourages transparency, extinguishes the negative stigma that comes along with burnout, and encourages relationships. These types of leaders are also more able to recognize burnout and job stress before it becomes an issue.

Measure the Strain of Burnout and Find the Core Areas of Stress

The first step to understand and address distress is to get a grasp of where you are and how you compare. Knowing which specialties are most affected by burnout can allow you to tailor your provided wellness opportunities to specific areas.

Using surveys and other methods for collecting data, it’s important to understand where your employees experience distress the most and how they currently deal with the issue.

Implement a Positive Wellness Program

Once you have a baseline for your employees and their well-being, it is important to build a wellness program that directly addresses their issues and areas of concern.

Popular solutions include exercise incentives, food and snack programs, counseling groups, team building activities, extra time off, and other efforts meant to encourage well-being and opportunities to deal with distress acquired on-the-job. There are many ideas, both short and long-term, that aid in reducing burnout among nurses.

Reducing nurse burnout is an organization-wide endeavor that starts with gathering the right information. When you have the opportunity to identify burnout symptoms and understand how they relate to the nurses’ well-being, you can take the right approach towards correcting the issue. It takes time to create a well-being plan for your nurses but putting one in place now can help you avoid major staffing problems in the future.


  1. Matthew McHugh-Ann Kutney-Lee-Jeannie Cimiotti-Douglas Sloane-Linda Aiken –
  2. Poghosyan, Lusine et al. “Nurse Burnout and Quality of Care: Cross-National Investigation in Six Countries.” Research in nursing & health 33.4 (2010): 288–298. PMC. Web. 6 Nov. 2017.
  3. “Preventing Nurse Burnout Starts with Understanding Causes.” AHC Media – Continuing Medical Education Publishing,
  5. Aiken LH, Clarke SP, Sloane DM, Sochalski J, Silber JH. Hospital Nurse Staffing and Patient Mortality, Nurse Burnout, and Job Dissatisfaction. JAMA. 2002;288(16):1987–1993. doi:10.1001/jama.288.16.1987
  7. “New nurses burnout and workplace wellbeing: The influence of authentic leadership and psychological capital.” Burnout Research, Elsevier, 2 Apr. 2014,

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  • Anonymously measures 6 dimensions of distress and well-being in just 9 questions. 
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