Tired women healthcare workers are sitting in masks in corridor. Burnout of healthcare workers concept

Enforcing Boundaries, Avoiding Nurse Burnout 

Avoiding nurse burnout

Like a car running on fumes, clinicians facing burnout risk real damage, not only to themselves, but also to their patients.  

As the world slowly recovers from the trauma and stress of the pandemic, clinicians should familiarize themselves with the signs of burnout, the factors contributing to burnout, and the toll burnout can take on their minds and bodies. 

The cost of compassion 

Even before COVID, a nurse’s work demanded a great deal: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The stress of caring for others often leaves clinicians with an empty emotional well, making self-care all the more challenging.  

Over the next five years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increase in demand for nurses. Yet the field faces sharp growing pains as well. Of the four million nurses currently working in the United States, nearly a third cite burnout as a reason for leaving or considering leaving the profession.  

Related: Self-Care Course Bundle 

Causes and consequences of burnout

Experts define burnout as a psychological syndrome, emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. When it comes to healthcare, those stressors are many. 

Understaffing, long shifts, unpredictable schedules, and lack of adequate sleep are just some of the factors contributing to the burnout epidemic. Add to that the pressure from tight time restraints and the emotional strain of patient care, and you have the perfect formula for exhaustion and burnout. 

Symptoms of burnout can include: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Insomnia 
  • Irritability 
  • Mood changes 
  • Decreased productivity 
  • Depersonalization 
  • Lack of enthusiasm 
  • Losing interest in hobbies or social activities 

For both nurses and patients, the consequences of burnout can be deadly. In a study by Marshall University, researchers found that nurse-to-patient ratios greater than one-to-four correlated not only with higher percentages of burnout, but each patient added to the ratio increased mortality by 7%. 

A slow-burning trauma 

The neurophysiological responses of someone undergoing burnout bear significant similarities to those experiencing trauma. Chronic burnout reduces the connectivity between different parts of the brain, which can result in decreased creativity, decrease working memory, and decreased problem solving. 

In those who experience stress for prolonged periods of time, those effects rapidly compound. The parts of the brain that control memory and attention weaken, which makes learning difficult. In situations where life-or-death decisions are frequent, these shortcomings can prove catastrophic. 

Related: Boundaries and Burnout: Strategies for Nurses to Maintain Self 

Setting up boundaries 

Setting — and enforcing — healthy, reasonable boundaries can help alleviate burnout symptoms and prevent future burnout. Establishing boundaries around your time provides the space (mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically) to release the daily stressors and engage in intentional self-care.  

The first step in setting boundaries, and often the most difficult, is saying “no.” Most nurses have experienced it: the calls while on vacation, the unexpected request to cover an extra shift. Too often, the default answer to these last-minute requests is yes.  

Learning to say “no” can be challenging. When you clearly define your boundaries, you demonstrate respect for your time as well as your colleagues’. When nurses make boundary-setting a habit, they give themselves a chance to pause, process, and address stressors in a healthy way, avoiding the build-up that leads to burnout.