Stop Calling it ‘Nursing Burnout’: Why Self-Care is Not Going to Solve Nurses’ Problems

Susan Bartlett Guest Blog Featured Image

In 2021, IntelyCare sought out the best nursing blogs on the internet. We compiled a list of the best blogs on the internet and asked our audience to vote! IntelyCare’s Top Nursing Blogs are curated by nurses, for nurses, making it the go-to place for nurses to get the stories, opinions, and information that matter to them while connecting with their peers. We ask Susan, author of Don’t Curse the Nurse and our second place winner, to write a piece about the real cause of nursing burnout and what we can do to address these issues going forward. Here is her take on the real issues facing nurses today.

Stress Starts in Nursing School

When I think back to my days of nursing school about 36 years ago, I was given a ‘stress survey’ that was defined by points. For example, having a baby at home was 3 points; a sick parent was 6 points; a new marriage – 3 points; moving to a new home – 5 points. The idea was for us to understand that good or bad, ‘stress was stress.’ This survey was followed by a few words of wisdom delivered to us about managing stress with sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. That was it.

Several weeks later the same instructor told us that you better be on your death bed if you miss a shift, because there are almost zero excuses for not showing up to work as a nurse. This introduced a new type of stress that was never discussed. We were quickly thrust into the world of high stress working conditions, and at that time, phrases like compassion fatigue, burnout, depersonalization, and vicarious trauma were never mentioned. It’s not that these things weren’t happening.

This Goes Beyond ‘Nursing Burnout’

Fast forward 30 years, and after the toughest two years in our lifetimes, we are still not talking about the core issues facing nurses in high stress situations. Instead, we are using terms like ‘self-care’ and ‘burnout,’ which ultimately diminishes the issues nurses are facing and side-steps the greater problems in the healthcare industry that caused them. If the expectation is that nurses must be in attendance at all costs, and that they should ‘suck it up’ when things get tough, then it shouldn’t be surprising when they start leaving the profession in droves.

The implication that ‘nursing burnout’ and need a little ‘self-care’ is an insult. It implies that nurses should be able to simply handle anything thrown at them, instead of recognizing the reality that these are conditions that are too much for any person to handle alone. There is something to be said for the fact that they aren’t leaving their jobs for a few months and coming back, they are leaving nursing permanently.

The American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, who was able to get burnout established as an ICD 10 code, defined it as having three elements: emotional exhaustion; a decreased sense of accomplishment; and depersonalization. Nurses are feeling all these symptoms, but they are symptoms of a greater problem – a broken system that is leaving nurses traumatized. Most nurses get into this field because they want to help people, but in a very sudden way during the pandemic, their hands were tied because they couldn’t access the resources they needed and couldn’t save patients who were suffering. They felt helpless.

We Need to Talk About It

We need to talk about what is really happening to nurses. And we need to listen to what nurses are saying about their struggles, we need to add training in the healthcare industry across disciplines to deal with these struggles, and we need to give space to nurses. The days of the “coming into to work at all costs” mentality needs to end.

There was the AIDS crisis in the 80s, and now there is a COVID pandemic. There will be something else major that comes along to disrupt healthcare and wreak havoc on the well-being of nurses. If we don’t address the trauma that nurses are being put through during times like these, they may not be around for the next one.


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