Nursing Burnout: The cause, effect and the suggestions
The nursing profession is one of the fastest-growing workforces in the country. And yet, according to the Canadian Nursing Association (CNA), Canada could be short up to 60,000 full-time RNs by the year 2022. Although demand for nursing continues to grow, supply of nurses has not kept up. In fact, only a few thousand more people entered the profession than left it in 2016 and there has been a 3.2% decline in nursing graduates obtaining a license to practice in Canada since 2013. These figures are due in no small part to the taxing nature of the work: in 2010, a CNA study found that 80% of nurses reported fatigue either during or after work, and a 2013 study conducted by the CBC found that 40% of nurses self identified as experiencing professional “burnout.”, or simply the nursing burnout.
Certainly some elements of burnout and fatigue are due to the physical exertions associated with the profession— nurses work long hours and the job involves manual labor like lifting and cleaning patients— but an increasing attention is being drawn to the psychological consequences of nursing. The psychosocial phenomena associated with professional burnout are known collectively as compassion fatigue; these symptoms may include irritability, depression, mood swings and self-isolation. In the absence of an intervention, someone suffering from compassion fatigue might develop a detached stance, losing their ability to form new emotional connections and to sustain existing ones.
The same way you might find your shoulders sore and hard to move after a day spent lifting heavy objects, our ability to experience and express empathy can stiffen up and dry out with overexertion.
Social scientists and mental health professionals often refer to the process of managing feelings, attitudes, and behaviors in the workplace— both their own and those of others— as “emotional labour.” Nurses who provide emotional support to their patients, comforting and reassuring them in the depths of physical and psychological suffering, are providing not just their physical efforts but also their emotional efforts too. Nurses, like any customer oriented industry, are expected to maintain a friendly and helpful demeanor while on the job, regardless of their actual emotional state over the course of a long workday.
Nursing, like other health care professions, requires the practice of emotional labor, which can be emotionally taxing. Entering a health care facility is stressful and upsetting for many patients, and since medical health is strongly correlated with mental health, the more serious a patient’s condition the more stressed and upset they may become. Nurses are required to interact with patients more intimately and frequently than most other health care professionals, making them more prone to feel the brunt of the emotional burden of healthcare. In one of our previous articles, we talked about how to cope with compassion fatigue and burnout. We also discussed that these professionals are burdened by the expectations and pressures from patients, staff, family, friends and society overall.
“The nursing profession has been considered to be highly susceptible to burnout due to work overload, inter-professional conflict, lack of clarity, task ambiguity, increasing complexity of the tasks, patients’ emotional demands, and with patients’ poor prognosis. Age, duration of total period of nursing, locus of control, sense of general well-being, adjustment capabilities, and emotional maturity were found to have a significant correlation with burnout “
Encouraging better emotional input by the nurses in healthcare, known as “compassion practice,” can take many forms; examples include providing access to psychological support for healthcare providers, easing workloads, peer group debriefing and establishing formal programs to recognize and reward nurses who provide exceptional emotional care. In a recent study, researchers from the University of Arizona found that nurses in clinics where compassion practices were in place reported less emotional exhaustion than their counterparts who did not have access to compassionate support. Fascinatingly, the same study also found that patients in clinics with compassionate practices “reported better interactions with nurses and gave higher evaluations of their patient care experience.”
In other words, compassion practices don’t only help nurses; they help patients, too.
Investing in health care usually means capitalizing in the technical aspects of care, but it is becoming more and more evident that encouragement and compensation for performing emotional labour is just as important as compensation for physical or technical labour. And just as compensation for technical, tangible labor takes a tangible form, compensation for emotional work can take an emotional form. The more compassion and empathy we afford to our health care providers, the more we care for them, the better they are able to care for us in return.
Nursing professionals should utilize employee assistance programs designed for them, for better stress management and self-care support. Keeping a fine balance between your work and personal life also helps in reducing stress, along with balanced diet, exercise and other recreational activities. Know the signs burnout and ask for help when you need it.