The Way We Think About Nurse Burnout is BrokenNurse Burnout is Broken: The Way We Think About It is Broken.

There are several things wrong with the way we think about nurse burnout. This is troubling for several reasons. If we do not have a clear understanding about burnout, then we cannot help nurses who may be suffering from it.

To be honest, when I sat down to write this post, I kept started. And then stopping. You know, when you are in Microsoft Word and you start typing. Then you have another thought… hit back space until you are left with a blank screen and then start over.

Well, I kept doing that. Not once. Not twice. Several times. I thought to myself, “This is crazy. Why am I having such a hard time with this?” I’ll tell you why-

Because this topic is HUGE.

Quite frankly, this is not one post. This is many. And so, I am going to section out the bullet points below with the ways that we think about burnout in a “broken” way. And then each bullet point will be expanded upon in a subsequent post.

So, welcome to one of my first “blog post series”. It is an exciting time! Here we go…

Nurse burnout can be talked about in various stages.

There are the underlying effects- the reasons why a nurse may be suffering from burnout. Then there are the symptoms- those things that nurses experience as a result of burnout.

  • The Way We Think About Nurse Burnout is BrokenWe don’t think about it. How often is burnout a course in a nursing education curriculum? When does an organization teach the nursing staff about burnout prevention strategies? The first thing that needs to happen is that burnout is actually brought to the forefront of the nursing profession. Over the past year or so, it has gotten more attention than ever before. However, there is still work to be done.
  • We stigmatize it. Since a nurse does not want to be seen as weak or viewed as though he or she is a failure, we tend to sweep burnout under the carpet. In fact, I saw a post on social media that wanted to eliminate the use of the term “burnout” and call it something else. If we assume that the person experiencing burnout did something “wrong” then of course they will not admit that they are feeling this way and will not seek out much-needed help.
  • We expect others to fix it. While I do believe that the nursing profession, hospital systems, individual organizations, and nursing leadership and management need to support the individual nurse in their well-being- it is ultimately up to the nurse to be accountable for their own health. A nurse who thinks, feels, acts as though they are the victim of burnout and that someone else caused them to experience it- is much less likely to turn things around and find any relief from the stressors of burnout.
  • We put a Band-Aid on it. Burnout is actually the consequence of multiple other factors. If a nurse thinks that by simply taking a short break from work is going to fix their burnout, they are sadly mistaken. The underlying causes need to be identified and addressed before the burnout will ever go away.
  • We call it something else. If you hear someone say, “I just need a break. I am stressed. I need to re-charge my batteries.” Watch out! Burnout is very different from stress. A nurse falling into the downward spiral of burnout needs much more help than someone who is experiencing a stressful event.
  • We fail to measure it. Unfortunately, this is true of all topics within nursing. Nurses have little time or resources to actually conduct research. The few studies that are published related to nurse burnout have limitations such as low sample sizes and weak study designs. If we do not have the literature to support nurse burnout, then we will not get the support from decision makers in power.
  • Then, we cannot evaluate it. No studies- do data. Without the outcome measures, there are little interventions that can be put into place. As stated above, the powers that be need to see the data. Healthcare has become likened to a business. Without money, new interventions that can help alleviate nurse burnout, will not be adopted.
  • We label it “all bad”. When we stigmatize nurse burnout as though the nurse did something wrong or become infected with some illness- we perceive all burnout as being bad. This is not true. Burnout can be good. In fact, when a nurse realizes that they are suffering from burnout and decides to do something about it- their life can be changed forever!
  • We keep doing the same thing. And keep getting the same results. A nurse who knows that they are experiencing burnout and continues to push hard is not going to succeed. Or maybe the nurse DID actually try something to help alleviate the burnout, but it did not work. Then they try it again and again. And again. Still not working? Well, maybe they need to try something different.
  • We don’t give it priority. The health of the nursing staff impacts everything. Patient safety, patient satisfaction, outcome measures. You name it. Burnout is the virus that can affect all things. However, since it is a “soft” topic that is difficult to measure and evaluate, it often gets pushed further and further down the list of agenda items. Or gets bumped from the agenda completely! We must see nurse burnout as a priority and give it the time and attention that it needs.

I believe there are actually more ways in which we think about nurse burnout that are broken. And I would like to hear your thoughts on this. So instead of me going on and on, let’s get your take.

And remember- this article is the first in a series. I will take each bullet point above and expand upon it further in a subsequent blog post. Fun times ahead!

Check out the Nurse Burnout Prevention Matrix, with over 100 nursing burnout interventions.

What would you add to the above list? How do you view the way we think about nurse burnout as broken? Maybe your comment will lead to a subsequent blog post! Maybe you would even like to write a guest article. Share a comment below. And thanks for reading!

Let’s hear from you! Have you ever experienced nurse burnout? What did you do to prevent, avoid, or end it? What can you share with our readers to help them put a stop to nursing burnout?

p1050390About the Author: Keynote speaker and virtual conference host, Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, partners with hospitals, nursing schools, and nurse associations to transform the field of nursing from the inside out. As the host of the Nurse’s Week program, The Art of Nursing, Elizabeth supports nursing organizations in celebrating and recognizing their staff in a meaningful way. Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is also a certified coach and Reiki Master Teacher. Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull.

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Elizabeth Scala, MSN/MBA, RN

“I’m a Nurse, but I’m Not Sure I LOVE Nursing Anymore! Can You Help Me?”


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