Avoiding Burnout as a Forensic Nurse

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Forensic nurses often absorb their patients’ distress, which can lead to burnout.

Forensic nurses play a pivotal role in working with patients of all ages who have been physically or sexually assaulted, victimized or abused.

It’s stressful, emotional work that exacts a mental and physical toll, making burnout a predictable occupational hazard. In fact, a 2017 study conducted by CareerBuilder found that 70 percent of nurses feel burned out by the profession.

Burnout can overwhelm forensic nurses, leading to physical and mental symptoms. If not dealt with, burnout can affect patient care through higher nurse turnover, lower morale, job dissatisfaction and the potential for patient harm.

Understanding forensic nurses’ responsibilities and advocating for nursing burnout prevention can help nurses and their managers take proactive measures to deal with stress and increase nurses’ well-being.

What Is a Forensic Nurse?

Understanding burnout means answering the question, “What is a forensic nurse?”

Forensic nursing is an emerging field that began in the 1980s. In addition to caring for and comforting patients, forensic nurses are involved in crisis intervention and often refer patients to care programs.

They also gather evidence for law enforcement and can be called to testify in court. Forensic nurses work in hospitals, mental healthcare facilities, medical examiners’ offices and correctional facilities. They also may help respond after natural disasters or use their skills to participate in anti-violence programs.

A career in forensic nursing starts with a bachelor’s in nursing from an accredited school, followed by an online master’s in nursing with a specialization in forensics. Forensic nurses can also pursue certification to become a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE).

Examples of Forensic Nursing Burnout

Every day is different in the field of forensic nursing because each patient presents a new challenge. Dealing with stressful, traumatic and high-pressure situations on a frequent basis can lead to professional exhaustion. Megan Lechner, a forensic nurse at UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, noted that one of the biggest challenges is the vicarious trauma they often encounter.

“Forensic nurses repeatedly hear stories of horrible things that have happened to people. Although these may not always, or immediately, affect us, vicarious trauma is cumulative,” she wrote on Nurse.com. “Nurses in general experience a high rate of vicarious trauma, and forensic nurses often experience more.”

Forensic nurses’ work doesn’t stop when they leave the hospital. They often absorb their patients’ emotional distress, which contributes to burnout.

A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that 51 percent of forensic nurses surveyed said treating rape victims was one of the most stressful parts of the job. Another 46 percent said they had experienced some level of burnout.

“It is really, really hard to see the evil that people do to each other; to listen to how horrible this person was to them,” Monique Turner, a forensic nurse at University Hospital in Utah, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

One of the first things a forensic nurse does is conduct an evaluation of the patient, a process that requires strength and compassion in the face of a traumatic situation. For example, strangulation is one of the most common injuries in domestic violence situations.

“We help them realize that they can go on, they don’t have to die,” said Turner. “… This is usually the worst day of their life, forever. … It’s really, really hard, but the emotional payoff is worth all of the evil nastiness.”

According to Career Builder, nurses identified these personal issues as a result of burnout:

  • Tired all the time (50 percent)
  • Sleepless nights (35 percent)
  • Weight gain (33 percent)
  • High anxiety (32 percent)
  • Aches and pains (32 percent)
  • Depression (19 percent)

Finding ways to help prevent nursing burnout can combat both on-the-job and off-the-job reactions to the stress of the job.

Ways to Prevent Forensic Nursing Burnout

As colleagues, forensic nurses often bond over patients and cases. Their camaraderie can also help them address the effects of burnout.

“This (working together) allows us to recognize and use positive coping mechanisms and promotes bonding with our team members. No one understands the work like your colleagues. Strong and special relationships are formed in forensic nursing,” according to Lechner.

A paper published in the European Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies identified three methods that are successful in preventing stress and burnout among nurses:

  • Clinical supervision
  • Psychosocial interventions
  • Social support from employers

The most effective, the paper noted, is continued clinical supervision. Of the nurses who received clinical supervision, 65 percent said they felt they had grown professionally and personally, resulting in an overall reduction of stress.

Long shifts can also contribute to burnout. Turner told the Salt Lake Tribune that she works six-hour shifts but found that the key to avoiding burnout is to take a hiatus for several months at a time. The extended break helps her and her colleagues recharge and also take care of aspects of their lives that they tend to neglect during stressful periods of work.

“It might sound callous,” Beth Weekley, a colleague of Turner’s, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “But you need to have some boundaries to not let it completely affect you and your life.”

Other techniques, as detailed on NurseZone.com, include:

  • Pay attention to what and how you are feeling. Notice negative thoughts and look for ways to find a positive angle.
  • Determine, or remember, what you enjoy about practicing nursing.
  • Practice deep-breathing techniques.
  • Take short breaks.
  • Practice an activity you enjoy that requires your attention. Focus on something besides your job to give your mind a way to rest.

Nurses are the backbone of healthcare, and they understand that stress comes with the job. Those in particularly high-stress professions, such as forensic nursing, work best when they understand how addressing the emotional and physical consequences of their careers can help them deal with and even avoid nursing burnout.

About Duquesne University’s Master of Science in Nursing

Students in Duquesne University’s online MSN in forensic nursing program can learn how to avoid nursing burnout in the classroom and on the job. Graduates may pursue a variety of clinical and leadership roles in sexual assault nursing, such as advanced practice sexual assault nurse examiner (SANEs), forensic nurse practitioner and advanced forensic nurse specialist.

The university also offers an online post-master’s certificate in forensic nursing. For more information about all of its online nursing programs, contact Duquesne University today.



The Nursing Skills Gap Continues to Grow While 70 Percent of Nurses Feel Burnt Out in Their Current Job, According to New CareerBuilder Survey – PR Newswire

What is Forensic Nursing? – International Association of Forensic Nurses

What’s It Like to Be a Forensic Nurse? – Medscape

Stress and burnout in forensic mental health nursing: a literature review – U.S. National Library of Medicine

Forensic nurses aid victims of assault, abuse – Nurse.com

The emotional challenges faced by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners – U.S. National Library of Medicine

Forensic nurses help ease rape trauma for Utah victims – Salt Lake Tribune

Vicarious Trauma Among Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners – Journal of Forensic Nursing

Strategies for Prevention: Mental Health Nurse Burnout and Stress – European Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies

8 Ways to Avoid Nurse Burnout – NurseZone.com