Nurses are human and humans can break
Updated: Mar 30
Caring for humans is hard. Trust me. I know. I entered the healthcare world immediately after high school. By twenty two I graduated from nursing school and went to work in the hospital. I saw my first human die when I was twenty-one and by twenty-five I had seen more deaths then I could count.
Like many individuals in their early twenties, I needed time to make sense of my world, to develop life skills that I had missed out on, and to make sense of what had often been a difficult childhood. Instead, I entered a world where I was advised not to grieve for my patients when they died as they had family for that. I came face to face with sickness, death and old age on a nightly basis, feared hostility from a particular doctor if I called at night without exactly the correct data and struggled to adapt to shift work. I felt alone and was convinced other nurses were not struggling. My issues, clearly represented my own weakness.
At twenty-seven, a mere five years into healthcare I was burned out. This was not a small campfire burnout. No, always the overachiever, when I burned out I did it forest fire style. Destructive, painful and life-changing, that experience brought me face to face with my own mortality.
I knew I was burning out and I knew I was in trouble but I did not see a way out.
I saw my primary care doctor who diagnosed me (I now realize incorrectly) with depression and started me on a antidepressant. A medication that instead of helping, worsened my situation. I began missing work and receive a write up from my supervisor due to absenteeism, the first corrective action I had ever received in my career. At the meeting, I timidly mentioned that I was struggling emotionally but my words failed to elicit support. I continued to push forward for a few more weeks, mostly because the unspoken reality of burnout is we NEED to work if we want to eat or pay rent. So, I worked until I could not work anymore and then as soon as I started to heal, even slightly I went back to work. This time, armed with the realization that I was not invincible.
I wish I could say this situation was the only time that emotional turmoil overwhelmed my life. This episode represented the most serious outcome of negative emotions in my life. However, it took many years and many coping strategies to become an emotionally healthy individual.
Somewhere along that journey, I came to the realization, I was not alone. The healthcare industry has a hidden legacy of burnout victims. One study, reported by the healthcare marketing and consulting company PRC and conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic found that 15.6% of registered nurses surveyed were experiencing symptoms of burnout when surveyed. A 2017 study by Kronos Incorporated found that 63% of the hospital nurses surveyed had experienced a burnout related to their work and 41% had considered changing hospitals in the past year due to burn out. No, rather then reflecting poorly on myself, this burnout proved that I was human, and humans can break.
Thirteen years later, I remain a practicing nurse. Today, among other roles I have the privilege of assisting caregiver in developing their skills. As I work with caregivers, I always look for the opportunity to encourage or provide the tools to avoid a catastrophic burnout. Sometimes, just having someone acknowledge the stress you are facing and offer an listening ear can be enough to begin to offer hope and help an individual start to recover.
If you are experiencing symptoms of burn out there is hope. Here are are few steps that can help:
1. Reach out to someone and talk about how you are feeling. Being able to talk with a trusted friend and share your feelings can make a world of difference in how you are coping. Therapy can also be a great help in being able to focus on your feelings and mental health.
2. Make reducing your stress a priority. There are different techniques that can be helpful. I find gratitude journaling, prayer and bible reading, time in nature and listening to music to be particularly useful. Others find meditation or mindfulness activities to be quite useful. The important thing is to begin to buy out time to relax. Consider, your sleep quality as well. Being sleep deprived makes managing stress difficult.
3. Practice saying no as a complete sentence. Often, in healthcare, there is intense pressure to pick up extra hours. While the extra money can be tempting recognize your need for rest and set limits.