Tips to Avoid Nurse Burnout

By CareerSmart Learning Contributor, November 10, 2016, as published by Healthcare Hot Spot


Nurses have a strenuous job physically, mentally, and emotionally. Whether it’s lifting patients multiple times throughout a shift, meeting with the constant institutional demands to ‘do more with less,’ or being present for the last moments of a patient’s life, the day-to-day duties that nurses encounter are uniquely challenging.

While there are many aspects of nursing that are rewarding, there are also many elements of nursing that are formidable. This difficult divide is one reason why nursing has such a high rate of burnout, with one study finding that nurses in the United States have a burnout rate of 54% (Kravits, McAllister-Black, Grant, Kirk, 2010). 

Burnout is described as the result of exposure to constant intense environmental stressors over a long period of time. Examples of environmental stressors include negative human emotions, such as pain, suffering, and death, and ethical or institutional issues (Kravits et al., 2010). Nurses experience these environmental stressors on a daily basis, and if those stressors are paired with ineffective coping mechanisms, burnout is increasingly likely. 

Ineffective coping strategies include smoking, overeating, and substance use. As of 2011, approximately 7% of nurses smoke cigarettes and nearly half report not having a healthy lifestyle (U.S. News, 2014). In a study that interviewed 7,166 nurses, only 55% reported exercising at least three days a week for 30 minutes, and 59% said that they ate healthily the previous day (Bass & McGeeney, 2012). 

Many people anecdotally say that nurses neglect themselves because they have poor diets and don’t exercise, but maybe nurses simply don’t have effective coping mechanisms to combat the stress of their jobs. Based on the United States’ burnout rate for nurses, it seems likely that what people view as poor self-care is actually ineffective coping mechanisms in disguise.

Adopting effective coping mechanisms is one way to decrease the likelihood of burnout.  Effective coping mechanisms can include:

  1. Relaxation Training: This includes meditation, deep breathing, massage, tai chi, and hypnosis. While these techniques are quite different from one another, the outcome should be the same: slowed heart rate, lowered blood pressure, decreased fatigue, and reduced anxiety (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014).
  2. Social Support: Support can come from many different people and in different forms, such as venting to co-workers or talking with a partner, family members, or friends. Having people to depend on for emotional support is vital to processing difficult events.
  3. Exercise: Endorphins released during exercise lead to an improved mood, making those who exercise happier people. Exercise can mimic meditation by giving a person one thing to focus on, leading to a calmer state. Exercise also decreases stress and anxiety while promoting relaxation and improved sleep (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2015). 

The difference between effective and ineffective coping mechanisms is the side effects.  Effective coping mechanisms provide long lasting, positive effects, like improved sleep and mood, whereas unhealthy coping mechanisms can create a similar crashing effect, like consuming sugar-laden foods. Both types of coping strategies feel good at the time, but only the effective coping mechanisms have been shown to decrease stress and the likelihood of burnout (Kravits et al., 2010).

Effective coping mechanisms provide fantastic side effects, but knowing what to do is only half the battle. Incorporating these techniques into their lives is often the real challenge for people. Nursing is a stressful and challenging job, and those stressors only compound over time. If a nurse solely engages in effective coping mechanisms after particularly difficult events, that nurse is not decompressing from the compounding stress endured on a daily basis. Implementation of effective coping mechanisms should become a daily habit to be most effective. 

Effective coping strategies are as individual as people, so there is no one-size-fits-all technique. Instead, nurses should find the techniques that they enjoy and work best for them. Practicing effective coping strategies gives people an arsenal to pull from on a daily basis and during those particularly trying times.   


Kravits, K., McAllister-Black, R., Grant, M., Kirk, C.  (2010).  Self-care strategies for nurses: A psycho-educational intervention for stress reduction and the prevention of burnout.  Applied Nursing Research, 23, 130-138.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.apnr.2008.08.002

U.S. News (2014, January 28).  Number of Nurses Who Smoke is Down: Report.  Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health- news/news/articles/2014/01/28/number-of-nurses-who-smoke-is-down-report

Bass, K. & McGeeney, K.  (2012, October 3).  U.S. Physicians Set Good Health Example. Gallup.  Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/157859/physicians-set-good-health-example.aspx

Mayo Clinic Staff (2014, May 8).  Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress.  Mayo Clinic.  Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/relaxation-technique/art-20045368?pg=1

Mayo Clinic Staff (2015, April 16).  Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress.  Mayo Clinic.  Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469?pg=1

November 10, 2016

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