Home Mental Health & Well-Being Unexpected Sources of Stress in the Nursing Field and How They Can Lead to Burnout

Unexpected Sources of Stress in the Nursing Field and How They Can Lead to Burnout

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Burnout is responsible for a significant portion of nursing turnover. Many of the factors contributing to staffing shortages at hospitals all over the country have nothing to do with compensation or even the difficulty of the work. Often, nurses who seek different careers do it because they simply feel fatigued with their responsibilities as a healthcare worker. 

Compassion fatigue

Most nurses go into the profession because they have a passion for helping others. Eventually, in some cases, that passion diminishes. Compassion fatigue does not mean that the nurse no longer cares about their patients. It does mean that they begin to grow jaded to the reasons why many people find themselves needing medical treatment. 

Pain, fear, and suffering become aspects of their baseline experience. They see it every day. It no longer moves them the way it did when taking care of patients was just an idea to them. 

A degree of emotional distance between the nurse and their patients is necessary. Someone who is going to break down every time something bad happens on the job won’t last long. 

Compassion fatigue takes emotional distance to a different level. Nurses who begin experiencing struggles struggle to empathise with their patients or even derive personal satisfaction from their work. 

While this can be a challenging experience, it is reversible. Many nurses find that discussing their feelings with other healthcare professionals can alleviate the symptoms of compassion fatigue and prevent full-on burnout. 

Social isolation

There are a few aspects of nursing/healthcare work that can have an impact on a person’s social or at home life. This includes:

The shifts

Nurses work three twelve-hour shifts at most hospitals. Some people like this schedule. It gives them more days off with their family than most people get. It may also make event/vacation planning easier. Hospital schedules are often set far in advance making it easy for nurses to plan their lives. 

All of that said, the schedule can create challenges. It is virtually impossible to have family/social interactions on working days. Many nurses spend their off days physically and emotionally recovering. They may not have as much energy for social interactions the day after a shift as they normally would. 

Job-related isolation

The specific conditions that come up during a normal shift may make it difficult for many nurses to discuss their work, or even feel up to meeting with friends and family after a shift. Many people in office careers feel “burned out,” to the point that they would rather stay home most nights. Nurses experience this at an entirely different level. Sometimes, they leave work moments after seeing a patient die or dealing with a grieving family member. It’s hard to go from that experience back into a domestic or social mindset. 

Most nurses who stay in the profession for a long time find ways to deal with both of these challenges. But it’s not something everyone can do. When work begins to drive a wedge between someone and the people they care about, they will often look for a less stressful career. 


Almost every nurse experiences violence at some point in their career. In fact, a recent survey indicated that, when verbal abuse is factored in, almost 80% have experienced it within the last year.

That number can be even higher, depending on where the nurse works. Nearly every psychiatric nurse reports experiencing violence at some point.

Why? While every situation is different, it owes primarily to two factors. The first is that healthcare workers have a responsibility to treat everyone – not just the people who are friendly and easy to work with. Sometimes, this means working with patients who are naturally volatile. 

The other factor is that hospital settings are sources of great confusion, pain, and anxiety for many people. A person who would not normally hit or yell at a nurse may become disoriented through treatment. They make choices that never would have occurred to them when they were healthy. 

Naturally, experiencing violent patient behaviour is overwhelming and very frightening for many nurses. Once someone becomes nervous about going to work or performing their job responsibilities, it is often only a matter of time before they seek a different job. 

Physical wear and tear

Nursing is much more physically challenging than many people realise. On a busy shift, nurses may spend almost twelve straight hours on their feet. They also move heavy things, or patients, routinely. After work, they often come home feeling sore and physically exhausted. 

That can be hard to deal with, especially when every shift is a twelve-hour marathon. While it is probably a safe bet that most nurses aren’t leaving the profession because their feet hurt, it’s a factor that influences the way they think about their work – particularly when taken with everything else. 

It’s important to note that not every nursing job involves heavy physical wear and tear. School nurses, doctor’s office nurses, and nurse practitioners spend lots of time on their feet, but not quite as extensively as those working a twelve-hour day shift at the hospital. 

Can anything be done to prevent healthcare burnout?

Some of these challenges are inherent to the work. People who don’t want to see sad things or deal with physically strenuous labour probably aren’t good fits for traditional hospital floor nursing. There are other professions that they can get into with their BSN. 

Some hospitals are making a special point of acknowledging and supporting their staff’s mental health needs. They do this by providing support resources, implementing mentorship programmes, and generally paying better attention to the concerns of their staff.

Other hospitals are playing around with shorter shifts, better compensation structures, and other quality-of-life considerations that will (hopefully) make the work more appealing. 

All of that said, it’s important to remember that nursing is a fundamentally difficult profession. This article didn’t even focus on some of the most obvious hardships patients face. There is nothing to be done about the fact that nurses will deal constantly with bodily fluids. See, people die. Be constantly confronted with their own mortality. These challenges are baked into the job description.

Bottom line? 

Healthcare work is hard. It will always take a special person to do challenging nursing jobs. However, hospitals can help prevent burnout by acknowledging common pain points and looking for ways to soothe them.

Tim Williamson, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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