Fairly recently, a mental health tech, a nurse manager, and a psychiatrist – all long-time veterans of the psychiatric hospital where I work – retired and sadly died from heart attacks immediately after. I’m a mental health RN. This has really shaken me up and made me question the long-term impact of our high-stress roles in healthcare.
These losses have not only been a personal wake-up call but also prompted a deeper reflection on the often-overlooked consequences of sustained stress in
healthcare professions. In my journey as a psych nurse, I have seen firsthand the toll that the demanding nature of our work can take on even the most resilient staff.
The question that keeps surfacing in my mind is: How does a career spent in the constant shadow of mental and emotional strain affect one’s life, both within and beyond the walls of a healthcare facility? What steps can nurses take to avoid being constantly stressed out and exhausted?
This is not just a topic for academic discussion; it’s a lived reality that demands our immediate attention. This article examines the network of factors that contribute to this crisis and investigates potential paths to resilience and recovery. It’s a reflection, an insight, and a call to action, born from the heart-wrenching stories of those we’ve lost and the untold experiences of many who continue to silently persevere in their stressful work environments.
The Escalating Crisis of Nursing Burnout
Stress and burnout are commonly experienced by nurses working in the healthcare field. These challenges go beyond individual experiences, reflecting broader systemic issues within the healthcare environment.
Before I go any further, I should mention that while building personal resilience is important, sometimes the best solution is finding a different work environment altogether. Recent research has emphasized the severity of the current nursing burnout crisis, highlighting the need for effective solutions, both on the personal and institutional levels.
In line with this, I strongly encourage nurses to build and maintain an emergency fund of 3 to 6 months of expenses. This isn’t just about safeguarding against personal emergencies; it’s also about creating financial flexibility. Having this buffer can make leaving a stressful job for a better opportunity less of a financial strain and more of a feasible, empowering choice.
Nursing has always been a stressful field of work, but the pandemic has made it even tougher, often pushing things to unmanageable levels. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) highlighted this in their 2023 study Examining the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Burnout & Stress Among U.S. Nurses.
They found that around 100,000 nurses left their jobs during the pandemic due to stress and burnout. By 2027, it’s expected that nearly one-fifth of nurses might leave the profession, a trend especially noticeable among newer nurses. This has led to a concerning 3.3% drop in the nursing workforce in just two years, underscoring the serious struggles our nursing community faces post-pandemic.
The nursing burnout crisis is more than just about endless shifts and heavy workloads. It digs into a bigger problem in our healthcare system. It is clear from interactions with my fellow nurses that a considerable number of us feel left out when it comes to decision-making or being part of the decision-making process. There’s a sense that we’re not always valued as we should be. And it’s not just about how we feel; this kind of overlook affects the care we give too. It’s a genuine concern that directly impacts our level of job satisfaction.
Addressing Systemic Flaws and Overcoming Stress
Compounding this, nurses frequently face constant understaffing leaving them to manage more patients than is feasible. We are often stuck in a never-ending cycle of putting out fires, taking care of patients, and doing administrative work without enough help.
This environment, which often feels chaotic, significantly contributes to stress and burnout. Breaking free from this cycle requires a proactive approach, one that moves beyond reactive measures. This proactive strategy is explored in further detail in my new book, ‘Self-Care Rx for Healthcare Professionals: Proven Strategies to Combat Stress and Burnout’, where I offer methods that Kirkus Reviews describe as: “An appealingly thoughtful and comprehensive strategy for combatting burnout”.
In a typical hospital environment, nurses often experience the strain of managing multiple patients with diverse needs, all while handling administrative tasks. This high- pressure, understaffed environment forces nurses into a continual state of reactivity. There are often limited opportunities for proactive care planning or even a brief moment to pause.
The ongoing cycle of laboring through three demanding 12-hour shifts week after week can be utterly draining. Based on my observations, I’ve noticed that the constant stress nurses experience in these settings seems to cause major health problems over time. Their frequent operation on the edge affects them beyond work, causing them to question if working in this environment which they were once so passionate about, is still the right decision. Apart from affecting mental and physical well-being, burnout also escalates the risk of making errors.
To effectively address these challenges, it’s essential for healthcare employers to take active steps. This includes doing everything in their power to ensure adequate staffing ratios, providing support for mental and emotional well-being, offering professional development opportunities, and fostering a workplace culture that genuinely values and respects the contributions of nurses.
By doing everything in their power to create a supportive and sustainable work environment, employers can play a crucial role in preventing burnout and enhancing the overall quality of care.
Embracing Personal Empowerment and Nature’s Respite
Taking a proactive approach is critical.
If someone is having an allergic reaction, the first step is to separate them from the allergen. In the same way, when you feel burnout quietly creeping your way, the first step is to step away from the hectic work environment and immerse yourself in a restorative environment (For the record, I’m not suggesting you tell your manager you are allergic to work!)
For many, the ideal place to get away is out in nature. Think of this as your Benadryl. This deliberate act of distancing yourself from the demands of healthcare, even briefly, can have a transformative effect. By reconnecting with nature, you regain a sense of control and perspective, restoring yourself to face your role with renewed energy and clarity.
Picture this: A nurse, exhausted from endless needs and demands, steps away from that environment and into nature. The trees are patient; the river is calm, and the sky is undemanding. Stillness fills the air in this relaxed setting, accompanied by the gentle whispers of the wind and the distant murmur of a brook. Each breath becomes deeper, each thought clearer. Taking a mental health day does not equate to laziness. Getting away and into nature is a ritual that can revive your soul and make you feel alive again. It’s an effective reset button when things get overwhelming.
Yet, stepping into nature might not be doable for everyone. Fortunately, there are several other effective tools to recharge, and they are different for everyone. For some people, simple practices like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or going to the gym can also provide significant relief from stress. Personally, I’ve discovered that practicing Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu serve as effective reset buttons.
We often forget how restorative nature or a certain hobby can be, but when we take the time to engage with them, we come back to that realization. Stepping away offers perspective, reminding us why we chose the path of nursing – to heal, help, and care. So, when the symptoms of burnout surface, remember that it’s time to stop and recharge. That’s how we find the strength to keep going on the noble caregiving journey.
Chris Wagner, who resides in Oregon, is a mental health RN and author with multiple interests. Alongside his work as a nurse, he dedicates his experience to uplifting the nursing community. Chris has an interest in personal finance and enjoys practicing martial arts, notably Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This blend of interests not only showcases his commitment to both mental and physical well-being but also highlights his dedication to continuous personal growth, community involvement, and sharing knowledge through his writing.
Over the years, encounters with diverse individuals and intricate life stories have fueled his passion for writing, shedding light on his various experiences in the world of nursing. His stories shed light on the various experiences within his career, highlighting the genuine challenges many nurses experience, alongside the resilience they show.