Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
As healthcare practitioners, we are prone to burnout. Why? Many reasons – we’re caring for other individuals, day in and day out, while working long hours. The work can be physically and emotionally depleting. We add into the mix complaints from family members, endless discussion about patient satisfaction scores, while management constantly “encourages” us to take our lunch breaks and update the white boards – but get all our work done. Oh, and somehow manage a social life, home life, clean the house…
How can you tell you’re burned out?
I’d like to say, “Oh, you’ll know” – but that isn’t always the case. When I still worked as a floor nurse, I told myself that I would never become burned out. I’d do all the things to prevent burnout. Until one day, I became so chronically sick and depleted that I was putting in my one-month notice and heading for a position in a private practice.
I hadn’t recognized the signs until it was too late.
Psychology Today notes that the signs of burnout often include:
- Chronic fatigue. This can include a lack of energy that develops to a sense of dread.
- Insomnia. Even with fatigue, the inability to sleep can become persistent.
- Forgetfulness and impaired concentration. This can impair your ability to get your work done.
- Physical symptoms. Chest pain, dizziness, headaches – all can be related to burnout. Of course, these symptoms should also be evaluated.
- Increased illness. As fatigue and insomnia increase, the immune system weakens, leaving you more susceptible to illness.
- Loss of appetite. Some people may lose a significant amount of weight.
- Anxiety. Anxiety can also can problems with all aspects of your life.
- Depression. There are stages of depression, and at its worst, depression can lead to suicidal ideation – always speak to a medical professional about depression.
- Anger. Often beginning as interpersonal tension, it can develop into tension in the workplace as well as at home.
As medical professionals working in a stressful industry, what can we do to prevent burnout?
Here are 10 things you can do to try and avoid it:
- Get plenty of sleep. As a new nurse in my 20s, I worked night shift. I struggled with getting 8 hours. Once I switched to day shift, I also struggled to get 8 hours because my body was acclimating to day shift after six years of working night shift. I’ve now been on a day shift schedule for six years and my body craves sleep at night. I don’t feel like a real person without at least seven hours of sleep. If you’re not getting seven to eight hours of sleep, you’re likely not able to deal with the daily stressors of life as well as you could be. Put down your phone, shut off the television, and get some rest. If you need further help with sleep hygiene, speak with your healthcare provider.
- Cut back on caffeine. Yes, I know. I said it. I didn’t even start drinking coffee until I started working night shift – then my coffee addiction hit big time. And who hasn’t heard the joke about nurses requiring a caffeine IV drip in order to get through their shift? Before you roll your eyes and skip this tip, hear me out. I spent years drinking four to six cups of coffee per day. I also get migraines. Once I cut it back to two cups per day, my sleep actually improved. Did everything else in my life improve? No – but maybe it will for you!
- Make plans. I routinely plan trips with my family and friends. My husband and I make dates, my family and I plan meals, I plan small theme parties with friends. The point of this? I make plans so that I have things to look forward to. I don’t overbook my schedule, but in the midst of all of the chaos that is nursing, I love to think, “Oh, tomorrow I get to have dinner and a movie with my husband!” or “Next week is my dinner party!”
- Ensure that you have downtime. When you look at your schedule and see four 12-hour shifts, several doctor’s appointments, a PTA meeting, parent-teacher conferences, and your son’s basketball practices, it is easy to get overwhelmed. What is missing? Downtime. Each week, make sure that you have downtime penciled in. For each person, this could be something different. This could mean time to take a walk with your family, a pizza night, a movie night, a yoga class – whatever helps you to relax.
- Speaking of yoga…Do some yoga. I fully realize that not everyone is onboard with yoga but try to have an open mind. One Chinese study evaluated nurses who practiced yoga and nurses who did not – the nurses who practice yoga had better sleep quality and lower work stress than their non-yoga practicing counterparts.
- Meditation. You don’t need to sit and “Om” for an hour to reap the benefits of meditation. Choose guided meditations. You can go to YouTube and find many. There are apps that can help as well – Insight Timer is a free app with thousands of mediations that range from minutes to hours, and Headspace is a paid app that is extremely popular and teaches mediation.
- Stay hydrated. Easier said than done on some days, am I right? However, staying hydrated with fresh water not only makes you feel better, but it makes you think more clearly. On days that I don’t make the time to drink water, I am more prone to headaches, I am cranky, and I do not perform as well. I have started to carry a water cup with me to work and keep it at my desk.
- Self-care. Self-care is quite the buzzword these days, and for good reason. Much of what we’ve discussed above is self-care, but there are acts of self-care that are individualized to each person. And what is self-care to you may not be helpful to me. For me, I love to put on a face mask and take a hot bath with a good book? For you, that may sound like torture. Find what feels good and perform at least one act of self-care daily.
- Take your breaks. I realize that there are days when breaks at work are just not feasible – your patient is in distress or you have a myriad of STAT orders. Most days, however, you should take your breaks whenever you can. Better yet, take your breaks – and leave the unit to clear your head. Your mind will thank you.
- Get a fresh start. If you need to, get a fresh start. Sometimes, you think you’ve found your passion. Your job is just the best! But despite your best efforts, it gets to you. It’s ok to spread your wings and try something new. That’s the beauty of healthcare – there is so much room to explore.
Carter, S.B. (2013, November 26). The tell tale signs of burnout… do you have them? Psychology today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-at signs-burnout-do-you-have-them
Wiley Online Library. (2015, October 19). A regular yoga intervention for staff nurse sleep quality and work stress: a randomized controlled trial. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jocn.12983