How to Stop Nurse Burnout and Boost Mental Health

By Sarah Knight, ShiftMed Content Manager//Nurse How-Tos, Nurse Self-Care, Nursing Profession
May is Mental Health Awareness Month—the perfect time to address nurse burnout, why work-life balance for nurses is more critical than ever, and how nurses can take charge of their well-being.

Understaffing and unsustainable patient loads strained the nursing profession long before COVID—the pandemic just compounded the problem. That's why today's nurses suffer from burnout and struggle with their mental health like never before.

Burnout is a common psychological occurrence in nursing characterized by a reduction in energy that manifests into emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, frustrated feelings, and reduced work efficacy. It decreases the quality of life for nurses and their job commitment while increasing their chances of quitting. The most common causes of burnout include high-stress work environments, long work hours, emotional strain, and lack of support.

Most Nurses Are Not Okay

Decades of research conclude that nursing is a psychologically demanding profession that can contribute to poor mental health in various ways, such as anxiety, depression, compassion fatigue, and burnout. When poor mental health is ongoing for nurses, it can lead to impaired functioning, resulting in clinical errors, patient harm, and overall clinical ineffectiveness.

Our 2022 State of Nursing Survey asked 500 nurses: "What are your top concerns working in the profession right now?" More than half of our respondents cited the nursing shortage, with 65% saying they're likely to leave the profession within the next two years. When asked how the nursing shortage has negatively impacted them, this is what they said:

  • 54% work more hours or longer shifts.

  • 43% have higher patient loads.

  • 40% feel their mental health has suffered.

  • 28% had time-off requests denied.

As a nurse, it’s easy to put the needs of others ahead of yours—but don't. Your health matters just as much as those around you.

Time for a Systematic Change

While there are things nurses can do as individuals to address their mental health challenges, they need the support of others. After all, the current state of our nation's healthcare system is what's driving most nurses to burn out and leave the profession.

The entire healthcare system, from employers to professional organizations, needs to prioritize the well-being of nurses. After all, nurse burnout is a costly problem for healthcare organizations as it leads to high absenteeism and turnover rates. But truth be told, nurse burnout harms all of us.

Some employers have created emotional wellness programs for nurses, but that only scratches the surface. There needs to be a cohesive effort within the healthcare industry to safeguard nurses so they don't continue to suffer in silence.

Vivek Hallegere Murthy, the 21st Surgeon General of the United States, makes a great point in his advisory on Building a Thriving Health Workforce. "Addressing health worker burnout is about more than health. It's about reflecting the deeper values that we aspire to as a society—values that guide us to look out for one another and support those seeking to do the same. Health workers have had our backs during the most difficult moments of the pandemic. It's time for us to have theirs.”

The advisory also provides recommendations as to what healthcare organizations can do to protect the mental well-being of health workers, including:

  • Transform workplace culture to empower health workers to be responsive to their needs.

  • Make an ongoing commitment to the health and safety of workers.

  • Review and revise policies to ensure workers feel comfortable seeking appropriate care.

  • Increase worker access to high-quality, confidential mental health and substance use care.

  • Develop mental health support services tailored to the needs of workers.

  • Rebuild community and social connection of workers to mitigate burnout and isolation.

What Nurses Want

Our 2022 State of Nursing Survey respondents who said they would likely leave the profession within the next two years mentioned they might reconsider under the right circumstances. Here's what they want:

  • 93% want control over their schedules.

  • 61% want higher pay.

  • 41% want more time off.

  • 41% want lower nurse-to-patient ratios

  • 1 in 4 want to choose their shifts.

Take Charge of Your Mental Health

As a nurse, what can you do to take charge of your mental health right now? Consider these four tips for overcoming nurse burnout:

1. Prioritize your work-life balance.

Given everything you've just read about the healthcare system, it's hard to imagine that a work-life balance for nurses is possible. While not an easy feat, it's possible if you make it a priority. For instance, tell yourself it's okay to ask for help and start delegating tasks to others at work and home. Make a conscious effort to "leave work at work" when you punch out—this might require practicing mindfulness. Spending less time around negative individuals who leave you feeling emotionally drained is also a good idea.

2. Pay attention to your needs.

As a nurse, it's easy to put the needs of others ahead of yours—but don't. Your health matters just as much as those around you. Self-care for nurses is essential, so be sure to eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and do forms of exercise you enjoy. It also helps to focus on your spiritual well-being by practicing yoga, meditation, or prayer. Think of self-care as a pillar of preventive care.

3. Identify and manage your stress.

Being a nurse comes with stress that's not found in other professions. So, it's important to identify your stress triggers at work and find ways to lessen their impact. Keep a journal and make notes when you're feeling overwhelmed and on edge. Once you know what triggers you, you can develop mitigation strategies. And don't be afraid to seek support from your peers or a mental health professional.

4. Rethink your employment.

If you've done everything possible to avoid nurse burnout and nothing seems to be working, you might need to consider other employment options. If your current employer is keeping you from living your best life, you can make a change now. You can start working with ShiftMed, a top nursing jobs app that lets you work when, where, and often you want while providing a comprehensive suite of perks.

Real-World Strides for Mental Health Awareness

Sam Roecker, a registered nurse in Pennsylvania, saw first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the mental health of healthcare workers. Her friend, a physician's assistant, cared for COVID patients for months on end and now suffers from anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

To raise awareness for more mental health support for nurses, Roecker ran the 2022 Boston Marathon in scrubs, hoping to break the Guinness World Record for the "fastest marathon run in a nurse's uniform." She did just that by crossing the finish line at 2 hours, 48 minutes, and 2 seconds—about 20 minutes under the previous record.  It's great to have an entire month dedicated to Mental Health Awareness—but awareness is only half the equation. Our nation's healthcare system needs to act year-round to prevent nurse burnout and maintain the mental well-being of all the professionals it employs.