How to Deal With Nurse Burnout: Coping Strategies and Tips

A nurse wearing blue scrubs and personal protective goggles and a paper mask over her face.

Many occupations have a significant degree of flexibility when it comes to things such as workload, scheduled hours, and remote work capabilities. However, a nursing career doesn’t always provide access to these advantages. From long shifts to high-pressure work environments and even emotional and mental exhaustion, nurses must accept the fact that dealing with burnout from time to time may be unavoidable.

Understanding this higher risk of burnout shouldn’t be a point of pessimism so much as one of preparation. Nurses should actively plan ahead and create a plan of action that can be set in motion when those turbulent times of physical, mental, and emotional strain take place.

Here are several of the best ways that nurses can successfully cope with burnout in their day-to-day activities.

Take Inventory of Your Stressors

From being confronted by exasperated family members in a nursing home to working with victims of sexual assault, nurses in clinical situations must deal with a plethora of stressors on a daily basis. These can blend into your surroundings over time, but it doesn’t change the fact that external stressors are still present, potentially impacting your mindset throughout the day.

If you’re beginning to feel burned out, one way to start confronting the problem is to catalog your stressors. Start by paying attention to what and how you are feeling while you’re working, as well as your mood fluctuations, and the causes of them.

As you identify stressful scenarios, consider what it is that is causing the stress. Could it be interactions with coworkers or patients, sleep deprivation, your workload, or even the simple fact that you’re potentially being exposed to infectious diseases on a daily basis?

Being mentally aware of these stressors will help you catch and process anxious situations before they have a chance to significantly impact your emotions.

Engage in Healthy Activities

Often one of the best ways to counteract unavoidable stress is to engage in healthy activities. These include:

  • Maintaining a nutritious diet: Stress eating is a genuine concern that must be eschewed in favor of fueling your body with the food and hydration that it requires.
  • Exercising: Aerobic activity is well known for its ability to combat stress by reducing adrenaline and cortisol while stimulating the production of endorphins.
  • Relaxing: Taking time to unwind and clear your mind at times is crucial, whether it’s five minutes to take deep breaths during a shift or a night out with friends after work ends.

Each of these should be considered both during work and personal time, as they can help to keep your mind focused, your body strong, and your emotions at ease.

Practice Mindfulness and Breathing Techniques

The ability to be in the moment is critical for a nurse. They must be able to make split-second decisions and give full attention to whatever task is at hand. Practicing mindfulness can enable you to do this while still remaining calm, cool, and collected. You can do so by applying a variety of different mindfulness techniques:

  • Pay Attention: Slow down, actively listen, and focus on what is in front of you.
  • Live in the Moment: Worrying about the past or the future only distracts you from the more important here and now.
  • Body Scan: Consider your body from head to toe and look for any signs such as a need to eat, sit down, or sleep.
  • Equal Breathing: Take a moment to shut your eyes and time slow, equal breaths (four seconds in, four seconds out) to help ground you in the present.
  • Abdominal Breathing: Take deep breaths through your nose and into your abdomen (without your chest moving) to calm down and regain the present.

All of these techniques enable you to ground yourself and maintain a mindful presence. This can enable you to overcome the stress and anxiety that surround you.

Set Boundaries

Work-life balance is essential if you’re going to avoid burnout. Between long shifts and varying schedules, this can be particularly challenging for nurses. However, it’s all the more important to take the time when you’re off the clock to unplug, disconnect, and focus on non-work activities.

Boundaries can also be important while working. For instance, taking regular breaks is a good way to find work-life balance. Learning to “say no” to extracurricular activities such as covering too many coworkers’ shifts, taking on new tasks, or participating in research projects can also help to keep you calmer.

Consider Changing Careers

If you find that you can’t shake that chronic stress, you may want to consider a pivot within the nursing field. There are many high-demand options that are less stressful, offer more autonomy, provide a change of pace, and remove you from high-pressure clinical environments such as a hospital.

Become a Nurse Educator

Nurse educators can help to prepare and equip nurses for the stress of the job. Focusing on teaching resilience to others in a controlled atmosphere can provide a welcome change from the strain of a clinical setting.

Become an FNP

Getting a certification as a family nurse practitioner (FNP) allows you to take your nursing expertise out of a hospital setting and into smaller communities where quality healthcare is lacking. This change in setting, along with the increased control you have over your work, can be the perfect antidote to chronic stress in the workplace.

Learn Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is a critical skill for professionals in any high-pressure industry — including nurses. Nurses are exposed to many situations that can be very difficult to witness, let alone mentally and emotionally digest afterward.

If you can slowly learn to compartmentalize and isolate these experiences, only visiting them when necessary, it can help you experience genuine tranquility when you’re trying to relax and unwind.

Seek Support

Finally, it’s always wise to consider reaching out for support when you need it. Burnout can affect you in many ways, and there are a variety of different support options that you can tap into, including:

  • Talking to family and friends to help you feel that you’re part of something larger than your professional life.
  • Going to a therapist or counselor to process trauma or learn coping strategies that provide long-term solutions.
  • Seeking out local support groups, both at work and in your personal life, that are specifically designed to help nurses process their feelings.

If you seek out support, it can help you resolve issues, process feelings, and remember that you’re not alone in your struggle to survive and thrive in your nursing career.