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August 10, 2020

Nursing & Healthcare

Preserving the emotional health of nurses.

An exhausted surgical tech sits on outside steps, exhausted.

It's no secret that nursing can be stressful. Nurses are uniquely positioned to help people during some of the best and worst moments of their lives. Most nurses thrive in that environment, but others struggle to manage the stress. Eventually, they may get burned out or overwhelmed by their work.

That's why it's so important to talk about the emotional health of nurses. According to the PRC National Nursing Engagement Report, nearly 16 percent of nurses reported feeling burned out in their work. Burnout rates were even higher in nurses who were already disengaged in their work (41 percent) and in specialty practice areas such as emergency department nursing (where 20 percent of nurses reported being unengaged).

Further Reading: Ten-hour shifts and a master's degree.

Every nurse should learn how to handle stress and preserve their emotional health. Recognizing common stressors and knowing where you can turn for help can make a difference, no matter where you practice.

Common contributors to stress and burnout.

Nurses aren't usually stressed by a single influence. Instead, they experience heightened levels of stress and burnout as a result of many factors working at once. Nursing is a high-stress profession—especially when you consider that nurses care for their patients across the patients' lifespans.

"Circumstances that bring patients face-to-face with their own mortality or the death of a loved one can be emotionally taxing for nurses," says Janeen Berndt, DNP, program chair of the Prelicensure BSN program at Western Governors University. "Providing care for patients who are critically ill or suffering can also lead to emotional distress."

Over time, excess stress can lead to burnout, which the World Health Organization says is characterized by:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increasingly feeling detached from or negative about your job
  • Reduced job performance

Increased workloads, dissatisfaction with work duties, complex medical issues, and long working hours all contribute to burnout. Nurses experiencing burnout often show similar symptoms, according to Becker's Clinical Leadership:

  • Physical fatigue or illness. Feeling tired or sick is usually one of the first signs of burnout.
  • Feeling underappreciated. Most nurses reporting burnout felt unappreciated at their jobs—and many, the National Nursing Engagement Report found, were too emotionally exhausted to improve their futures.
  • Compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue—a lack of ability to connect with patients—is related to continued and repeated exposure to emotional distress. In many cases, nurses internalize the emotional stress of the patient's situation, leading to their own emotional suffering.
  • Resistance to change. Nurses experiencing burnout often find it difficult to adjust to changes at work, even if they're minor.

Taking care of business—and yourself.

Many resources are available to boost the emotional health of nurses. And the healthcare industry has taken a step forward in promoting regular self-care. According to the American Ambulance Association, self-care improves resiliency by helping nurses make meaningful connections, reframe how problems and challenges are viewed, and simplify their lives.

"Self-care techniques include mindfulness, meditation, spiritual care, and self-reflection through journaling," Berndt says. "There are also smartphone apps available to help guide self-care. But if nurses feel that burnout or compassion fatigue are more than self-care can manage, they should consult a mental health professional."

Many employers offer resources to support self-care, such as quiet rooms, resiliency classes, and access to mental health resources.

"Nurses can turn to each other—no one understands nursing stress like other nurses—or to their families, support groups, and professional counselors," says Stacy Manning, DNP, Program Chair of the BSNU program within WGU's College of Health Professions. "Nurses should never be afraid to ask for help."

How to manage your emotions at work.

Nurses can practice self-care during working hours, too—though it might be slightly more complicated.

"We need to prioritize breaks, even if it's just a few minutes, to call home and hear a friendly voice, or to walk outside to get some fresh air," Manning says. "And this is a big one—cry, get mad, get frustrated, be really happy. Allow yourself to feel all your emotions and don't push anything down, even if you only take five minutes to feel what you're going through. It may sound simple, but it works."

Exercises such as deep breathing can be done during work to improve your mood and your resilience to the hardships that you face. It's important to try these solutions as soon as they're needed, as burnout and compassion fatigue diminish patient care, according to a study published in the journal Research in Nursing.

Nursing is a challenging profession, and its demands affect nurses' emotional health. But practicing self-care techniques and seeking out professional help when needed will significantly improve any nurse's quality of life and the quality of care they provide. As more employers realize the value of an engaged workforce, the more resources nurses will have to help manage their emotional health.

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