Build Resilience to Avoid Nurse Burnout

image of exhausted nurse

Resilience is a widely-used word and popular concept lately.

What does resilience mean for nurses? It means being able to continue caring for others with compassion and strength under the constant stress of working long hours with scarce resources. It means feeling like you and your work make a difference, feeling connected with a team and a mission, and maintaining hope and optimism. It means being able to regularly regain physical, mental, and emotional composure to focus with clarity during patient crises.

Burnout, on the other hand, displays as physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, a constant dread of going to work, feeling cynical about life and your role as a nurse, being easily triggered to anger, or frequently feeling irritable and grouchy. Burnout causes you to feel like you’re not good enough for your job anymore.

What leads to burnout? Chronic stress associated with the nursing profession has negative impacts on the mind and body, potentially causing burnout. Awareness of the negative impacts of stress and recognizing when those impacts begin to manifest is crucial to keep the body from repeatedly going into fight, flight, or freeze mode over real and perceived threats. Learning to recognize the first signs of stress, and taking action to manage the stress, is the key to keeping it from spiraling out of control and causing burnout.

Building resilience will help avoid, and aid in recovery from, chronic stress and burnout. Each day our “cup” contains a given amount of resilience, the ability to bounce back from negative events. When we don’t practice the basic daily acts of self-care, the cup empties and we break down more easily. We may cry or blow up over the tiniest trigger, experience symptoms of depression, or want to give up. Our response at the moment is a result of our current state of resilience. If we take time to refill our cup each day, we can bounce back quicker.

Organizational support for building resilience in the workplace is important and varies greatly between organizations. Some openly provide needed care and support, creating an atmosphere where nurses feel safe asking for help. Others may try to shame those in need, making it hard for nurses to speak up for fear of losing their job or carrying a negative stigma of needing help. Changes at the organizational level are possible but take time.

Meanwhile, you can use these basic daily practices to refill your cup and regularly enhance your resource state. These practices don’t need to take much time, and in fact, can make it feel like there’s more time in the day. Start with one new habit, then incorporate more when you’re ready. Notice changes in how you feel as your practice grows.

Resiliency-Building Practices

  • Nutrition and hydration – Nurses are notorious for not eating complete, nutritious meals or drinking enough water during a shift. Because nurses are so busy caring for others, and that need never stops, it may feel impossible or uncaring to take a quick break for a proper meal, to stay hydrated, or even to use the restroom. But the truth is that humans function better physically and with more mental clarity and focus when properly fueled. To take better care of your patients, take better care of yourself.
  • Exercise – Even though nurses are on the run constantly at work, consider more pleasing ways to move your body. Yoga, walking or running outdoors, swimming, dancing…whatever appeals to you that will help you relax and unwind will also keep your body stronger and more resilient.
  • Learn to say “No” – Identifying and setting healthy boundaries at work and at home will increase resilience, help you build self-confidence, and set a great example for co-workers. This isn’t about shirking responsibility. It’s about standing up for the right to decline too many shifts and extended hours because being overworked endangers both nurses and patients. It’s about standing up for adequate staffing and resources. It’s about stopping gossip, negative talk, and bullying. It’s about standing up for uninterrupted time for self-care at work and at home. (See below for a free guide about saying “No.”
  • Flexibility – Stand firm yet be flexible when it feels right. Nurses don’t always have to say “No” but can recognize that it’s an option. You have a choice.
  • Social support network – Connection with others, including co-workers, friends, family, or mental health professionals, builds resilience. For many reasons, nurses don’t bring work conversations home, so building a safe network of colleagues can help. Finding workable solutions together to shared problems builds resilience.
  • Sleep – A lack of quality sleep is a pervasive issue among nurses. Try to schedule device-free downtime before crawling into bed. Incorporating some of the daily resilience-building practices above will also improve sleep.
  • Gratitude – Intentionally looking for something good throughout the day will buoy your spirits and build resilience. Expressing gratitude either silently, verbally with a quiet “Thank you,” or writing down the good you noticed each day leads to noticing more and more for which to be thankful. This works. It will turn a bad day around when you find the good and celebrate it.
  • Self-care practices – there are many other ways to build resilience, including a regular meditation and/or breathwork practice, receiving massage and/or Reiki, or practicing EFT tapping to prepare for your shift and to clean up the emotional leftovers from the day. Choose one or more of these self-care habits as you notice what works best for you.

Nurses deserve a break, especially when it seems there’s no time. Take a look at how often you deny yourself basic needs while caring for others. Ask yourself how long this can last without impact on yourself and your care of others. And choose a way to start building resilience today.

Please remember: It's important to contact a professional if things feel too big for you, whether it be a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or certified EFT practitioner. Never discontinue your current medications without first consulting your doctor.