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8 Changes to Make at Work to Prevent Burnout as a Healthcare Provider

Nurses and physician assistants are two of the fastest growing professions in the U.S., so if you fall into either category, you can expect a fair amount of job security. The downside? Facilities often struggle to fill these in-demand positions, which can lead to short staffing and burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout — emotional and physical exhaustion to the point that one’s work and relationships suffer — affects up to half of healthcare providers. (One survey placed this number at about 50 percent of nurses and another around 44 percent of doctors.) Some common causes of burnout include: time pressure, a lack of control over work processes, fraught relationships with coworkers and managers, and long shifts.

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The term itself is common because people in other industries experience it, too. That’s why Dr. Nathalie Martinek — wellbeing consultant for healthcare professionals and cofounder of SafeSpaceHealth — stresses that nurses and other HCPs suffer from “compassion fatigue” in addition to burnout.

What is compassion fatigue? How is it different from burnout?

Healthcare professionals face a specific type of exhaustion as a result of “being exposed to a great degree of suffering on a daily basis,” says Martinek. Compassion fatigue is brought on by “seeing people in their worst moments where they can be seen as helpless or powerless,” she adds. When you’re only focusing people’s hardships, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by negativity.

What are the symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue?

Per Martinek, some of the most common signs of burnout and compassion fatigue include:

  • Not feeling rested after you wake up
  • Tension in your upper body
  • Judgmental thoughts towards patients
  • Getting snappy, feeling irritable
  • Emotional numbness
  • Shame about the way that you’re acting, ex. thoughts like, “I suck at this, my patients don’t need me, I’m not good enough.”

How can you overcome compassion fatigue and burnout?

Because burnout and compassion fatigue are such natural responses to HCPs’ intense work, fighting them starts with acknowledging and addressing your feelings. “Often the problem is not the burnout itself but the response to the burnout,” Martinek says.

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Using your free time wisely can make burnout more manageable. For example, see a therapist or ask your doctor about your mental health. When you can, rest and take a day off. Get outside, exercise, socialize with non-coworkers, or enjoy a spa day.

But let’s be honest, time off isn’t easy to come by for many HCPs. And more importantly, Martinek says, a massage won’t eradicate your feelings of self-doubt long-term. That’s why she recommends integrating small changes into your workday. Here’s where to start:

Ask for support.

Compassion fatigue and burnout often result in feelings of “shame that you should be doing better,” but isolating yourself can be detrimental to your health, Martinek says. If you feel comfortable, ask your facility’s management for help. If not, talk to your coworkers. “Don’t assume you’re the only one going through this,” Martinek explains. “Name the elephant. Say, ‘let’s support each other.'”

Debrief with a coworker.

Even if your workplace doesn’t have a formal peer-support structure, try to debrief regularly with someone loving, nonjudgmental — and who you can trust to keep your comments confidential. This prevents your stress and other feelings from “accumulating inside,” Martinek says.

Give and receive praise at lunch.

When you gather to eat, it’s natural to vent about your day, but that actually reinforces negativity, according to Martinek. Spread positivity by reminding your coworkers of what you saw them doing well and the effect it had. Expect some positive feedback in return!

Find an accountability buddy.

When making healthy lifestyle changes, be realistic. Otherwise, when you don’t follow through, you’ll feel worse. Start small, Martinek says, and find someone non-judgmental at work who can help you keep it up. For example, plan to take the stairs more and enlist a coworker to do it, too. When you forget, you can lovingly remind each other.

Turn hand-washing into “me time.”

You already know you don’t have time for a lengthy break every shift. But you are required to wash your hands. At the sink, take three deep breaths and think positive affirmations, statements starting with “I can…” and “I will…” If you do get a break, step outside or walk to another part of your workplace. Diversifying your environment helps you reset, Martinek says.

Learn to say “no.”

An issue among HCPs is an inability to say no because they worry rejecting additional work will make them seem less competent — even if they’re at capacity. If you’re uncomfortable saying no outright, Martinek advises starting with: “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m already filled. Can I get back to you?” That way, you have time to consider how saying yes would affect your mental health.

Notice your patients’ strength.

As you’re exposed to suffering, ask yourself, “What is it about people deteriorating and recovering that’s important to you? What are the strengths they’re showing?” Martinek advises. This mindset will encourage you to see your own strengths and derive purpose from your work.

Recognize when you make a difference. 

Many HCPs feel like they must produce life-saving outcomes even when circumstances are out of their control. This can make work feel pointless, so instead appreciate what you do accomplish for each patient in the time you have. “Helping them feel more peaceful, calm or listened to, that’s a huge part of the job,” Martinek explains. “That’s the healing part.”

Nurse Burnout,
Job burnout: How to spot it and take action, Mayo Clinic.
7 ways to jumpstart healthy change in your life, Harvard Medical School.
Wash Your Hands, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last updated on 10/2/19.

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