A nurse leader meets with staff in a hospital office.

How to Prevent Nurse Burnout

Nursing: Healthcare Systems Leadership

Nurse leaders play an important role in recognizing, intervening, and preventing burnout of staff who are under their supervision. As research and understanding of the issue improve, nurse leaders are finding more effective ways to stop negative work habits from escalating and prevent burnout from taking hold in the first place. Protecting clinical staff from burnout is dependent on nurse leaders confronting the reality of the issue, and working to counter it at every possible point of influence.

Nursing professionals who want to understand what nurse burnout is, and how to prevent nurse burnout, can develop advanced leadership skills by pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN).

Defining Nurse Burnout

Burnout not only poses a threat to the health of nurses, but also can impact staff at all levels, negatively affect a hospital’s bottom line, and potentially pose a direct risk to patients. Nurses who are new to a hospital or are fresh out of school can be just as susceptible to burnout as veteran staff.

It is common for staff who are suffering chronic stress to carry on working and keep up appearances. This “covering up” mechanism can make it more difficult for others to recognize when someone is simply tired or having an off day, or when they are struggling with burnout.

The contributing factors that lead to burnout can be very subtle.

  • Increasing sick days and call-offs
  • Missing deadlines or neglecting certain tasks
  • Withdrawing from relationships and opportunities to socialize
  • Getting frustrated with little inconveniences or becoming preoccupied with minor details

Other contributing factors that lead to burnout can be more internal.

  • Feeling exhausted on emotional and physical levels
  • Being dissatisfied with the job and accomplishments
  • Lacking motivation to complete tasks

Effective nurse leaders should have formal policies as well as informal cultural mechanisms in place to help identify burnout. This may include having regular team huddles, more casual points of contact to ask teammates how they are doing, and encouraging staff to take breaks or talk through specific challenges. Not only can these strategies help nurses work through their issues, but they can give nurse leaders more insight into the daily stresses of their staff and more provide points of contact for assessing the health and attitudes of staff.

What Causes Nurse Burnout?

To understand how to prevent nurse burnout, nurses should understand the causes of the issue. Much of the time, burnout begins as chronic stress. While health care can be inherently stressful at times, nurse leaders must understand how that stress can build from ordinary and manageable, to something more serious. By knowing what drives stress among staff, nurse leaders can aid recovery and even prevent escalation.

For example, patient care takes a lot of social skills and compassion in addition to clinical knowledge. Unfortunately, becoming too empathetic with patients under certain circumstances can end up causing nurses to experience compassion fatigue. This is a common underlying cause of the emotional exhaustion that can lead to burnout among nurses.

Additionally, the learning curve with respect to new technology has become a common source of stress and frustration among caregivers. Having to adjust workflows and change priorities to comply with new standards or policies can be disruptive and frustrating. This kind of change has been cited as a primary cause of burnout for many nurses, and even physicians.

Strategies for Preventing Nurse Burnout

Struggling nurses can focus on practicing a balanced, sustainable approach to compassionate care by modeling the emotional management that is demonstrated by nurse leaders themselves. Professionals in nurse leadership positions can practice the following techniques.

  • Listening to nurses
  • Providing feedback
  • Helping establish effective time management practices
  • Maintaining a presence among the nursing staff
  • Exhibiting positive stress-management and self-care behaviors
  • Setting reasonable expectations for themselves and their teams
  • Maintaining composure 
  • Showing a willingness to talk through stressors or other personal and emotional challenges

However, sometimes peers, as opposed to managers, are better positioned to recognize the signs of burnout earlier. For this reason, nurse leaders should not only cultivate relationships with senior executives, but also foster a culture of teamwork and support among nursing staff.

Nurses on a team need to feel comfortable and supported in reaching out, intervening, or communicating with leadership about their concerns. This is all dependent on the organizational culture that is developed and exhibited by nurse leaders.

Nurse leaders develop strong relationships with their staff through effective interpersonal communication. Sometimes, leaders need additional resources to identify how to prevent nurse burnout. Initiatives by nurse leaders to find solutions to workplace burnout help express leadership’s trust in, and compassion for, the nursing staff. Showing this trust and support can foster a dynamic relationship, where everyone is a resource and takes responsibility for one another. When nurse burnout occurs, staff members need responsive leadership and a supportive team culture to turn to.

The Role of Nurse Leaders in Addressing Workplace Stress

Training and ongoing education are routine duties of nurse leadership. Within these learning opportunities, nurse leaders can focus on providing their nursing staff with stress-management instruction, coping skills, and collaborative discussions about how to remain compassionate yet safely detached. Nurse leaders can also be sensitive to concerns about technological disruption. By providing training resources as well as administrative support, staff members can feel comfortable using new tools and workflows.

A healthy organizational culture can also be a preventative measure for burnout. Creating a culture of openness and collaboration can help nurse leaders stay attuned to instances when staff may be struggling with workplace stressors.

Embracing humor, celebrating individual and shared victories, showing appreciation, encouraging everyone to take breaks, and enabling staff to contribute their feelings about extra tasks are all shown to help keep stress levels lower. Creating such a culture depends in part on nurse leaders being visible, and using their influence to demonstrate the behaviors they wish to see among their team.

Those in a leadership role can also take a more proactive approach to change management, presenting change as new opportunities to develop new skills. Fostering an attitude of tolerance toward change, and demonstrating a willingness to learn and adapt, are key leadership actions that can help eliminate the risk of burnout as well as maximize team performance.

Preventing Nurse Burnout in Health Care

Becoming an effective nurse leader entails taking on a high level of accountability, making a positive impact, and being influential in the clinical space. To be successful, nursing leaders should blend robust clinical knowledge and social skills to find a balance that serves everyone in the hospital.

Norwich University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program helps students hone their knowledge and skills to assume leadership positions in health care systems, nursing education, or nurse informatics. The program aims to develop students to take lead roles in shaping health policy, educating other nurses and health care professionals, and providing advanced patient care.

Students interested in focusing on a specific area of advanced practice nursing can pursue Norwich’s online Master of Science in Nursing: Nurse Practitioner program, which offers Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner tracks.

The Norwich University online nursing coursework has been developed based on guidelines from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Discover how the program can help you learn how to prevent nurse burnout and become an effective nurse leader.


Recommended Readings

Cutting Edge Technology and Modern Hospital Rooms
How Nurses Can Advance Medical Research
What Is Evidence-Based Practice?


Nursing Leadership – Staff Mentoring, American Association of Nurse Assessment Coordination
How Nurse Leaders Can Reduce Burnout: Focus on Mental Energy, Nurse Leader
New Nurses Burnout and Workplace Wellbeing: The Influence of Authentic Leadership and Psychological Capital, Science Direct
Work Stress and Burnout Among Nurses: Role of the Work Environment and Working Conditions, National Center for Biotechnology Information
Medical and Health Services Managers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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