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5 Signs of Nursing Burnout and Fatigue

In general, people are equipped to handle stress in short bursts. Unfortunately, the pace of life today is faster and in many ways more demanding than it used to be. We now face extended periods of elevated stress levels, often at work, and we are not as capable of handling it as we might think we are. Burnout—a state of emotional and/or physical exhaustion—can be an unforeseen consequence of unresolved stress.

Burnout was recently added to the World Health Organization’s list of official medical diagnoses

“If it’s not managed effectively over time, it can affect job performance. It can leave one feeling exhausted, unmotivated and ineffective on the job. Job performance can also suffer,” explains David Ballard, senior director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of Applied Psychology. 

In today’s healthcare environment there are massive workloads and extensive responsibilities. Shifts can extend to 10 or 12 hours, which causes fatigue and burnout. Meanwhile, the trend of cost cutting means nurses work extra hard. What are the signs that you might be fatigued or burning out? Let’s take a closer look. 

What are the Signs of Burnout Among Healthcare Professionals?

Burnout varies from person to person, career to career. First, we’ll talk about what it looks like in general, then take a closer look at how it might manifest in healthcare workers. 

General Signs of Burnout

When we’re stressed, we know it: short temper, anxiety, headaches, trouble sleeping—stress is generally easy to spot. When it continues for a long time, however, we get used to the symptoms and stop paying them so much attention. This is when problems start; prolonged stress can trigger a range of less obvious, but equally dangerous mental and physical issues that could mean you’re heading towards burnout. 

“Job burnout is a response to work stress that leaves you feeling powerless, hopeless, fatigued, drained and frustrated,” says Dr. Audrey L. Canaff, a UC Foundation Assistant Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “But since job burnout is not an overnight occurrence, it’s important to recognize its early signs and to act before the problem becomes truly serious.”

According to the WHO, burnout is characterized by three dimensions: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

The first step to tackling burnout? Be mindful of the warning signs (Image Source).

Burnout in Healthcare Workers: Signs to Look Out For 

Burnout is higher among those in high-stress jobs—including healthcare work. The 2019 National Physician Burnout, Depression, and Suicide Report found that 44 percent of physicians experience burnout. Another study found that between 35 and 54 percent of nurses and doctors experience burnout.

Here are the warning signs to look out for: 

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  1. Tiredness

Prolonged exposure to stress is exhausting on the mind and body. Registered nurses (RNs), first responders, and doctors are often tired—it’s inevitable when you work 12, or even 24-hour shifts. However, there’s a difference between fatigue and chronic exhaustion. If waking up is increasingly difficult, or you find yourself falling asleep at odd times, or unable to fall asleep when you go to bed, it could be a sign you’re burning out. 

  1. Insensitivity 

Healthcare professionals are usually the most compassionate people out there, but it takes a lot of energy to be constantly kind, patient, and caring. If you find yourself unable to care, or suddenly feeling distant with a patient you previously had a strong emotional connection to, then this could be a sign of burnout. Detachment, insensitivity, and feelings of emotional deadness are common signs. 

  1. Persistent Anxiety 

Healthcare is a famously stressful career: you worry about your patients, your colleagues, and mistakes on the job. If you find yourself constantly feeling overwhelmed when faced with small changes, or crippled by fear when faced with a decision, burnout could be looming. Chronic anxiety may also mean you have trouble eating (overeating or undereating), insomnia, and/or a growing feeling of dread. 

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  1. You Feel Unwell 

From dizziness and migraines to an upset stomach—healthcare burnout can make you sick. Stress lowers your immune system while raised cortisol levels (the stress hormone) can trigger a range of physical symptoms. If you’re catching every bug that comes your way, or you have chronic pains or digestive issues, then burnout could be the root cause. 

  1. Dread 

Healthcare work can be stressful, thankless, and even traumatic. There will be days when you dislike your job, or would rather take the day off than head in—but if you really dread going to work each day, then it’s a sign something isn’t right. Signs of workplace dread include frequent escape fantasies, a desire to be almost anywhere else, and feelings of anxiety or hopelessness when you think about work on your days off. 

Preventing Burnout

Burnout is reversible and preventable. Your first step is to make yourself aware of the signs and symptoms—both in yourself and in your colleagues. It’s also a good idea to approach your manager or the HR department if there are workplace issues you think should be addressed—such as scheduling, or better support for workers after they’ve experienced something traumatic. 

In many cases, time off (ideally a month or more) is the best course of action, but occasionally, a job change might be necessary. Before you reach this stage, try developing healthy strategies for dealing with stress and burnout—from getting plenty of sleep, eating healthily, taking regular breaks to taking up a new hobby, or getting exercise. 

If you’re experiencing burnout and struggling to find your way back to health, speak to your family, friends, or your supervisor. Also consider seeking the help of a mental health professional, who will be able to help you discover strategies to help improve your well-being.

Final Thoughts 

As you will learn (or have learned) in nursing school, nursing is both extremely stressful and incredibly rewarding. Although burnout can become a very real hazard of the job, taking care of yourself will put you in a better position to keep it under control. Remember, you’re not alone—there’s a support system to help you handle the stress, and thrive.

If you’re passionate about helping people and are ready for your next challenge—then nursing might be the profession for you. Learn more about what nursing programs are available to suit your needs. 

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