Nurses can experience acute stress. After all, they often work long, irregular hours in hectic environments while caring for multiple patients, and at times the stakes are literally life-and-death. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the stress level even more for nurses everywhere. According to one study, about half of all nurses now say they experience moderate to high-stress levels, with over 60 percent reporting emotional exhaustion.
High-stress levels can affect a nurse’s health and well-being, even deplete their energy and impede their critical thinking. While nurse stress is part of the job, certain steps can be taken to combat it. Consider some of the top strategies for managing nurse stress in the workplace.
Nurse Stress: Causes and Effects
Many factors make the nursing profession uniquely stressful; the cumulative effects of this stress can take their toll on nurses’ physical health and emotional well-being.
Common Causes of Nurse Stress
- Nursing requires high levels of skill: The nursing profession calls for the constant use of high-level skills and technical acumen. It is a mentally demanding job that does not allow opportunities to “check out” or run on autopilot.
- The healthcare environment demands teamwork: Nurses are also required to work seamlessly with doctors and other nurses. Communication problems and personality clashes are inevitable and can lead to stress and frustration.
- Nursing is a ‘24-hour’ job: Nurses often work extremely long shifts, which can be emotionally taxing and physically grueling.
- Nurses face emotional burdens: Nurses must regularly confront illness, mortality and grief, all of which can lead to significant emotional strain.
- Interacting with patients and families can be difficult: Communicating with patients and their loved ones can be taxing. Nurses must be empathetic and clear as they explain diagnoses and treatments, which can be demanding.
In addition to some of these nursing-specific inflection points, healthcare professionals can also experience stress for the same reasons as people in other professions: such as issues with salary or benefits, clashes with direct supervisors or challenges caused by a lack of work-life balance.
Physical Health Impacts of Nurse Stress
The consequences of nurse stress can be significant. Often, they include both short-term and long-term effects on physical health.
For example, the American Psychological Association notes that stress can have a major impact on the musculoskeletal system. Stress causes the muscles to tense, a protective response against pain and injury. The muscles of constantly stressed people are continually on guard, which can result in temporary or chronic back, neck and shoulder pain. Tension headaches can also be recurring symptoms of stress.
Stress may also lead to cardiovascular problems. One of the immediate effects of stress is an elevated heart rate. Over time, this contributes to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and hypertension.
Some additional physical effects of stress include the following.
- A weakened immune system
- Insomnia and daytime fatigue
- Respiratory problems including shortness of breath
- High blood sugar
Mental and Emotional Impacts of Nurse Stress
Employees in high-stress environments may face significant mental and emotional health consequences, including an increased risk for depression and anxiety.
Why is this so? Stress triggers the release of certain hormones, including sedative hormones that try to calm the body and mind. When released consistently, these sedative hormones can lead to ongoing feelings of depression, lethargy and low energy.
Managing Nurse Stress in the Workplace
Nurse stress is not only common but also potentially highly hazardous to physical and mental health. The good news is that practical steps can help manage nurse stress in the workplace.
Identify and Track Personal Stressors
What situations, conditions or people cause personal stress levels to rise? Nurses can identify personal stressors by keeping a simple journal, making note of days when they feel especially overwhelmed and jotting down the circumstances contributing to that feeling.
By identifying specific stressors, nurses can discover avoidance or mitigation strategies. For example, nurses may note that they feel especially stressed on days when they eat a later lunch. A few workplace snacks or protein bars may help curb stress caused by hunger.
Take Time to Recharge
Another important way to deal with nurse stress in the workplace is to take time for self-care.
Specifically, nurses can set aside time to recharge following especially long shifts or grueling work weeks. This may mean sleeping late, enjoying a leisurely walk or sipping tea while reading a good book. Nurses can also prioritize regular yoga, meditation, or massage sessions.
It’s important for nurses to establish firm personal and professional boundaries.
This is harder for nurses who are “on call” on a specific day. On off days, however, it’s important to leave work at work. This may mean turning off workplace email alerts, texts and notifications. It also means preventing personal or family matters from disrupting work. Personal calls or continually checking online digital devices at work can lead to feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin.
Understand What Can and Can’t be Controlled
Still another important step in relieving nurse stress in the workplace is acknowledging what’s controllable and what’s not.
For example, nurses may not be able to control the long hours they work. They can, however, take mental health breaks during a long shift and take time for self-care afterward. Furthermore, nurses can’t always choose their coworkers, but they can choose to communicate clearly and effectively with people on their team.
Communicate Concisely and Clearly
Clarity in communication is another significant tool in managing workplace stress.
Nurses regularly share information with physicians, technicians, patients and family members. Such communication can be stressful, especially when balanced with the need to address difficult diagnoses and tough treatments in a caring, compassionate way.
A good way to minimize the communication burden is to keep workplace emails, texts and face-to-face reports simple and to the point.
Maintain a Healthy Diet and Exercise
Finally, nurses can stave off stress by maintaining sound nutrition and regular exercise.
Stress often results in poor nutrition. Fast food is convenient, and stress hormones can increase cravings for these fatty, salty or sugary foods. The following are some ways to promote healthy nutrition under stress.
- Eating a healthy and filling meal before starting a shift
- Bringing healthy snacks to work, rather than relying on fast food or junk food vending machines
- Choosing green tea over coffee
- Drinking plenty of water throughout the day, as opposed to soda or juice
Additionally, regular exercise can be a pleasant and effective way to combat stress. Exercise releases endorphins; “feel good” hormones that can counteract anxiety and depression. It also offers a chance to clear the mind and counter some of the unwanted physical effects of stress, such as unhealthy heart rate and blood sugar levels.
Resources for Managing Nurse Stress
For additional insight into dealing with nurse stress, consider:
- American Mobile, “4 Ways for New Nurses to Cope with Stress.” Find out how those new to the profession can mediate stress.
- Very Well Mind, “9 Simple Ways to Deal with Stress at Work.” Explore some additional techniques for addressing workplace stress.
- WebMD, “Ways to Manage Stress.” Gain additional insight into effective stress management.
The Nurse Leader’s Role in Reducing Stress in the Workplace
Nurse leaders and supervisors also play a role in minimizing workplace stress. Indeed, one of the most important responsibilities of the nurse leader is to create a professional environment in which nurses are empowered to do their best work, caring for patients without being overburdened by stress in the workplace.
Creating Healthy Work Environments
Nurse leaders can take specific steps to develop and nurture desirable work environments.
Respect Work-life Balance
Nurse leaders and managers should support their teams’ work-life balance by refraining from after-hours texts or emails.
Ensure Mental Health Breaks
It’s also important for nurse leaders to enforce policies that require all employees to take regular breaks throughout their workday.
Clarify Responsibilities and Expectations
Nurse leaders can remove uncertainty from the workplace by diligently outlining expectations for each team.
Create Open Lines of Communication
Nurse leaders can ensure that all nurses on the team know how and when they can voice feedback or share concerns.
COVID-19 and Stress in the Workplace
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent stress soaring in healthcare environments. Nurse leaders can equip their teams to deal with this stressor.
Remote Nurses and COVID-19 Stress
During the pandemic, many nurses have transitioned to working remotely. Remote work can feel isolating for some nurses, and that in itself can be stressful. Nurse leaders can schedule regular one-on-one check-ins and virtual team huddles. Additionally, nurse leaders can share words of affirmation, reminding their team that even while working remotely, their efforts make a difference in patients’ lives.
Frontline Nurses and COVID-19 Stress
For nurses combating COVID-19 on the front lines, nurse leaders can regularly review the protocols and procedures for keeping personnel safe and minimizing exposure to the virus. COVID-19 safety issues are a key source of workplace stress. Nurse leaders can make clear that they are doing everything they can to guarantee the healthiest work environment possible.
Resources for Dealing with the Stress of COVID-19
For nurses who are dealing with COVID-specific stress, these resources may be useful:
- Forbes, “How to Manage Workplace Stress Dealing With the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Get some insight into handling the anxieties of the pandemic.
- Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, “Healthcare Personnel and First Responders: How to Cope with Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Find out how healthcare workers can manage stress during this difficult season.
Coping with Nurse Stress
Stress is a natural part of life, but some vocations are uniquely challenging. Nursing is a prime example. With the right strategies, however, nurses can be proactive in managing and mitigating their own stress — and making their careers especially fulfilling.