Nursing burnout has impacted more than 2.7 million nurses since 2020. If you are a nursing student or currently working as a nurse, you have most likely experienced symptoms of burnout or know someone who has. Nurse burnout will likely increase over the next decade as the nursing shortage increases, making it a critical issue to be aware of and prepared for. Though you can’t predict burnout, you can implement strategies to combat the stress, exhaustion, and fatigue that often precede it.
This guide discusses the key signs of burnout, provides strategies for dealing with those symptoms, and outlines free mental health resources created specifically for nurses and nursing students. Keep reading to learn how you can prevent or overcome burnout and optimize your chances at a long and successful career helping others.
Burnout 101: What is it and What Causes it?
Burnout is a mental health condition caused by external situations. Similar to depression and other mood disorders, it impacts your energy levels, interest in your career and personal hobbies, and your overall mood. Burnout itself can be caused by many situations, including domestic abuse and caring for a sick loved one. Healthcare burnout, which many nurses and nursing students struggle with, is caused by a stressful workplace or overwhelming workload.
Approximately 31.5% of nurses who leave the profession cite burnout as the reason. Many cited working too many hours, a stressful work environment, and chronic understaffing as their primary reasons. Because of their importance and tremendous level of responsibility, nurses are at a higher risk of burnout than other healthcare professionals. Similarly, nursing students can experience higher levels of burnout than other students because of the intense training they must go through to become nurses.
Within the nursing field, various subpopulations tend to have a higher risk for burnout than others. These populations include female nurses, nurses working in the intensive care unit (ICU), nurses with associate degrees instead of bachelor’s degrees, new graduates, and those working full-time with patients. Additionally, if you’re single, divorced, or lack a spiritual practice, you also may be higher risk.
What Does Nurse Burnout Look Like?
Burnout often manifests in overwhelming stress because of your workload, decreased interest in your nursing classes or work shifts, emotional fatigue, or something else altogether. While burnout is most often caused by an unhealthy workplace or too heavy of a workload, individual causes differ from nurse to nurse and student to student.
Typical causes of nurse burnout include:
- Emotionally and physically draining tasks
- Long hours
- A stressful work environment
- Understaffing/staff shortages
- High employee turnover
- Lack of sleep
Typical causes of nursing student burnout include:
- Emotionally and physically draining coursework
- Unrealistic expectations from external sources
- A student’s perfectionism
- Long clinical hours or odd clinical shifts
- Having to learn a lot of difficult coursework in a small period of time
- Lack of sleep
- Stressful classroom or clinical environment
Identifying the specific cause of your burnout is a useful first step to overcoming it. The next is recognizing its causes and symptoms followed by discovering strategies for reducing and even eliminating it.
Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
The Maslach Burnout Inventory, developed in the early 2000s, identifies three primary signs of workplace burnout: emotional exhaustion, emotional detachment, and low personal accomplishment. Since then, signs and symptoms specific to nurses have been identified. Nurse and nursing student burnout differs from other types of burnout or mood disorders, and the list below discusses their unique signs and symptoms.
Both physical and emotional exhaustion are signs of burnout. Physical exhaustion often manifests as sore muscles, chronic pain, and other types of physical discomfort. More difficult to identify, emotional exhaustion looks different from person to person. For nurses, it results in low energy before or after shifts, hopelessness that you’ll be able to change your work situation, and feeling stressed or overwhelmed faster than usual while on a shift and in your personal life.
When a nurse experiences burnout, it’s often hard to give the same level of care and compassion to patients. This compassion fatigue manifests in many ways. It could just be an internal annoyance or frustration when caring for patients, or it could impact the quality of care.
Emotional detachment results in separating yourself from coworkers, patients, and others around you. Nurses suffering from emotional detachment are less likely to be emotionally invested in their work and might have lower levels of empathy. It can also lead to less excitement about going to work or less enjoyment from the favorite parts of your job.
If you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or worried at work, you might be experiencing workplace anxiety, especially if these symptoms go away when you’re not working. Work anxiety can be a physical ailment, like tension in your shoulders and neck during a work shift, feelings of extreme worry, or a combination of both. If you have similar anxiety consistently when you’re not working, you might be experiencing generalized anxiety instead of work anxiety.
It’s normal to have bad days at work. Even if you’re working your dream job, you’ll still have days where you’re dissatisfied or unhappy. What isn’t normal is feeling this way during every shift. If you’re constantly unhappy at work, you might be experiencing nurse burnout, especially if this feeling is new or you used to love your job.
Sometimes, burnout manifests as an unexplained illness such as constant tension in your shoulders or an achy, exhausted back. Getting an unexpected cold or other viral illness could also be a sign of burnout since stress negatively impacts the immune system. In contrast, an illness or injury with a direct cause, like the flu spreading through your workplace or pulling a muscle in your back while carrying heavy medical equipment, is most likely not because of burnout.
Low personal accomplishment
If you’re contributing less at work or feeling a lack of accomplishment during your shifts, you might be suffering from low personal accomplishment. Low personal accomplishment can also manifest as feelings of inadequacy in your job or feeling unsatisfied at work but unsure of what to do to feel happier and more successful. This symptom could also include beating yourself up when you make a small mistake or negative self-talk about your job performance.
Lower test scores
If your test scores are lower than usual or than the class average, you might be suffering from burnout. This is especially true if you used to get higher scores. For example, if you always got As in your anatomy class but got a C on your last test, this could be a sign of burnout.
Failure to turn in assignments on time or at all
We’ve all occasionally missed a deadline because of a busy or stressful season. However, this happening repeatedly could be a sign of burnout. Similar to lower test scores, this is more likely a sign of burnout if you used to turn in assignments on time but don’t anymore.
Repeated absence from classes
You used to look forward to your morning physiology course, but now you can’t seem to drag yourself to class no matter how much coffee you drink. Repeated absences, especially when paired with a lack of motivation, are often a sign of academic burnout.
Decreased interaction with peers or withdrawal from participation
Feeling burned out often leads to finding it more difficult to participate in an academic community. If you struggle to pay attention and participate in class discussions, study groups, and class activities, you might be suffering from burnout.
Inability to focus on schoolwork
If you used to be an avid notetaker in the class and had no trouble paying attention but now find yourself drifting to TikTok or zoning out during lectures, you may be experiencing burnout. Nursing student burnout often results in an inability to focus on schoolwork, whether in class or when doing homework.
Increased anxiety and depression
Feeling stressed and overwhelmed to the point of increased anxiety and depression often mean burnout. Feelings of anxiety and depression can be caused by many different conditions, so it’s often best to consult a mental health professional to determine if your depression and anxiety are from academic burnout or another reason.
10 Strategies for Overcoming Burnout for RNs & Nursing Students
If you find yourself experiencing any of the signs and symptoms of nurse burnout, these proven strategies and tactics can help you overcome them. They work by changing small aspects of your life that result in a big impact on your mood. Many are also preventive strategies against future burnout, too. This list, while not comprehensive, provides some of the best ways to address and eliminate burnout in your life.
1. Focus on self-care
Self-care involves indulging in an activity that brings personal happiness or relaxation, like journaling or watching your favorite movie. From watching Netflix to treating yourself to a coffee, find small ways to bring yourself happiness every day.
2. Prioritize nutrition and exercise
What you eat and how often you exercise have a huge impact on your mood and overall well-being. This doesn’t mean you have to tackle an intense CrossFit class or go full-vegan, though both are fine if they suit your interests. Improving your current nutrition or exercise habits can be as simple as swapping your candy bar for an apple during a break at work or taking the long way to your next class instead of rushing there to scroll on your phone.
3. Spend time with your community
Your community is there to support you. Let them. So often, we feel like we have to deal with mental health problems alone. However, those who love you can help you feel less alone and provide some much-needed love and encouragement.
4. Learn your triggers
Certain events, such as working an understaffed shift or pulling an all-nighter to finish an assignment, often trigger anxiety. Some triggers can be fixed through better time management or talking to your professor about an assignment extension. Others are often out of your control. When you can’t control a trigger, equip yourself to better handle it with self-care tools.
5. Seek support when needed
Having someone you can talk to about your burnout can make a huge difference. While a loved one can fill this role, a trained therapist provides an objective resource for dealing with burnout.
6. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries at work and school could mean not taking extra shifts if you’re sleep deprived or not looking at your school email after a certain time. Find ways to make sure you get a break from the most stressful components of your life.
7. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness strategies can help ground you in the moment. Mindfulness can be developed through a formal practice like guided meditation or breathwork or through an informal process like taking a moment to appreciate your morning coffee or thinking about three things you’re grateful for whenever you’re stressed.
8. Learn to compartmentalize
Related to setting boundaries, it can be important to compartmentalize work and personal life. You can do this by not checking school-related emails when hanging out with friends or by doing a hobby you love without looking at your phone. When you’re not at work, shut down any thoughts about work by distracting yourself by playing games with friends or watching a movie.
9. Get adequate sleep
Sleep is a crucial and often overlooked part of good mental health. When you get seven to eight hours of sleep, you’re less likely to experience burnout and stress. Prioritize getting enough sleep even if that means blocking out time in your calendar or setting a timer to remind yourself when it’s time for bed. If you pick only one strategy to focus on for overcoming burnout, adequate sleep will give you the biggest return in the shortest amount of time.
10. Consider a career change
If burnout persists after employing some of these and/or other strategies, it might be time for a bigger change. This could mean going back to school to get your BSN or MSN, changing to a different specialty, or applying to new jobs in the same field.
20 Resources for Nurses & Students Dealing with Stress and Burnout
When you’re working to overcome burnout, it’s important to know you’re not alone. There are many free and low-cost resources – covering everything from finding a different position, achieving better mental wellness, and growing your support system – for nurses and nursing students that can help. The 20 resources below provide a solid starting point.
Resources for Nurses
Since early career nurses are more likely to suffer workplace burnout, the North Carolina Nurses Association created a resource hub for new RNs that includes an online community, a career center, and a welcome to the profession kit.
Whether you’re looking for a new role or more fulfillment in your current one, the ANA can help. Its career hub has plenty of free resources on topics ranging from workplace wellness to creating an amazing nursing resume.
Due to the increased emotional exhaustion and stress experienced by critical workers since 2020, Therapy Aid offers free online counseling to nurses and other critical workers.
The Texas Nursing Foundation developed a series of instructional videos and free PDFs for nurses experiencing burnout. While originally developed for emergencies, they adapted these resources for any nurse dealing with COVID-19 stress.
This online peer-support group connects nurses for accountability and support. This was developed by the Wisconsin Nurses Association and is for nurses in that state.
If multiple strategies to combat your nurse burnout haven’t worked, consider searching for a new role. This free app pairs RNs with employers in North Carolina to help them find new roles faster.
This book by sisters Emily Nagoski Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski D.M.A. does a deep dive on the stress cycles that cause burnout. They cover what the scientific data says about the effects of stress and burnout on the body and provide actionable steps towards creating wellness and balance in your life so you can break the cycles of Burnout.
Resources for Nursing Students
This free student hub includes academic and mental wellness resources, including an online support community and a healthy living guide, for nursing students around the country.
While certain resources (e.g., scholarships) offered here only pertain to students in North Carolina others (e.g., board-approved list of student resources) are available for free to anyone.
This hub from Nursing Center covers everything from dealing with academic stress to preparing your resume after graduation to passing the NCLEX.
EduMed’s mental health and wellness hub for nursing students lists a variety of free and user-friendly resources.
This Facebook group provides feedback, support, and advice to nursing students. Topics range from passing the NCLEX to dealing with burnout and anxiety as a nursing student.
While primarily focused on helping nursing students in the UC university system, this hub also offers free resources for nursing students around the country.
Designed specifically for nursing students, this toolkit helps new nurses navigate everything from career development to overcoming burnout in a new nursing role or at school.
Resources for Both
While this group’s primary concern is creating administrative changes that help Louisiana nurses, it also has a mental wellness campaign with free mental health resources accessible to nurses across the country.
This podcast features real-life stories of nurses who overcame burnout and offers practical tips to thrive as a nursing student or nurse. While it was created for British nurses, nurses around the world can find value in the episodes.
While mainly focused on legislation and tackling administrative problems, they also offer resources to nurses looking to collaborate with their administration to find solutions.
This Facebook group lets nurses share tips and tricks on a variety of subjects from the fatigue of working as a travel nurse to dealing with an understaffed workplace.
This Youtube channel provides wellness tips and inspiration to help nurses overcome burnout and find more success and fulfillment in their professional and personal lives.
This podcast offers real-world advice, interviews with experts, and wellness tips to help nurses thrive at work. The Nurse Burnout, Overwork, and Suicide episode is particularly useful for those suffering from burnout or depression.
Burnout Q&A with a Nurse Leader
We talked about nurse burnout with Martha Paulson, MSN, RN, CEPN, an experienced nurse leader with extensive clinical experience in critical, cardiovascular, and acute care. She has worked for 20 years throughout the largest healthcare systems in Denver, CO, and recently relocated to beautiful Plano, TX. Her strengths include nursing program strategy and design, crisis management, team and individual development, mentorship, and raising the bar on service excellence. Today, she is a Clinical Manager at Advantis Medical Staffing and spends her time interviewing, coaching, and helping new clinicians transition to travel nursing to advance their careers.
Q1: What is your #1 strategy to help nurses overcome burnout?
A1: Mental health is incredibly important and strongly correlated to nurse burnout. Although these are very simple pieces of advice, they make a huge difference: exercise, eat well, sleep well, and take breaks. Find an activity that’s fun and requires little to no mental strain to enjoy on your breaks. Always remember to be kind to yourself and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Q2: What is your #1 strategy to help nursing students overcome burnout?
A2: If nursing students are feeling overwhelmed by school, they should take frequent breaks from studying to take a mental break. However, if they’re fatigued from repetitive schoolwork, they can pivot back and forth between small and large projects to keep things refreshed. Alternatively, they can seek out new opportunities and experiences at different hospitals or units to find a specific line of work that will reignite their excitement and motivation to be a nurse.
Q3: Do you think burnout is more common in nurses or nursing students? Why?
A3: Burnout is more common in nurses than in nursing students because of the long working hours. For nursing students, oftentimes they feel overwhelmed by school but not burnt out from nursing itself.
Q4: What is the most underrated advice when it comes to nursing burnout?
A4: Take periodic days off. You don’t need a reason to use your paid time off (PTO). You don’t need to have plans when you’re on PTO. It’s okay to just treat it as a care day for you to mentally recharge, reset, or enjoy a change of pace. A good practice is to set aside at least one day a quarter to make sure you’re taking the time to take care of yourself.
Q5: What roles does a supportive administration or university play in helping nurses and nursing students fend off burnout?
A5: Supportive administrators should be open to nurses reaching out and expressing they’re experiencing burnout and needing someone to talk to. The administration should take the time to understand what the cause is — overworking or stale work — and strategize what they can do to alleviate it.
In my role as a director, a popular solution was job sharing. For example, in the ICU some nurses feel stressed and burned out from the workload intensity within the unit. To help the nurses, we implemented a job-sharing program where nurses can choose to have shifts in different units. For example, to balance out the stress, instead of five shifts in the ICU they’d replace some with a shift in the PCU and another in a procedural area. Oftentimes, we also have CNAs and virtual sitters rotating shifts to keep things fresh and avoid stale work.
Another alternative solution is to see if there is an added skill or dimension the nurse may want to add to her career. Personally, I love nursing and used to work in the ICU but transitioned into management instead to look at nursing and patient care from a different lens. Similarly, supportive administrators can help nurses by arranging training sessions for new skills or more flexible hours to pursue continuing education.
For nursing students, they can fend off burnout by balancing courses with different intensities per semester. Alternatively, if the workload is still too high for them, they can also choose to earn fewer credits per semester, so they have the time and mental energy to dedicate to learning.