Even before COVID-19 hit, nurses were at high risk for mental illness — with more than 60% reporting symptoms of burnout and 54% reporting their workload had negatively impacted their mental health. COVID-19 has only made things worse — with 79% saying their anxiety levels are higher now than prior to the pandemic.
Nurse burnout is pervasive and personal, but you can help yourself and other nurses improve mental health with a few small changes. Here are four tips that can help you create a healthier work environment.
1. Talk about mental illness
Most nurses are well aware of the impact mental illness has on their patients, but 38% of nurses RNnetwork surveyed believed it was still taboo to discuss personal mental health issues with their coworkers.
Scott Carpenter, a telemetry nurse who travels with RNnetwork, is pleased to report he’s seen the opposite at the hospital where he currently works. His charge nurse confided that he has PTSD, and Scott had a candid conversation with him about it.
“My nursing instructor drilled this into us: ‘No matter who they are, if they tell you they don’t have some type of mental issue, they’re lying’,” Scott recalls. “Everybody has had some form of mental health issue. We had a big conversation at my hospital.”
If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness, be open with your supervisor or coworkers about it if you can. Chances are, someone else is facing the same problem, and you can help each other. Create a workplace plan with your supervisor’s help so you know how to support others and can notice nurse burnout early.
2. Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed
Of the nurses we surveyed, 59% attributed their anxiety or depression to the demands of nursing. While only 16% said they met with a mental health professional about work demands, 47% wished they had better access in the workplace.
LaDonna Shore, a cardiac step-down nurse who travels with RNnetwork, says she was overworked as a staff nurse and the hospital was short-staffed, which had a big impact on her job satisfaction.
“I think I experienced burnout at least once a week. I think, ‘Why did I choose this? Why am I still doing this? There are easier ways to make money than what I’m doing right now’,” LaDonna recalls. “It’s hard when you’re not getting a lunch break, getting a chance to pee, getting a chance to do the things your body requires you to do.”
A nationwide nursing shortage has made it hard to maintain a safe patient ratio and find time to eat, hydrate, and take care of yourself, but it’s important to say something when your schedule is affecting your health. Tell your supervisor how you’re feeling and confide in coworkers. If your facility offers an employee assistance program or counseling, participate in it and get help.
3. Find ways to leave work behind
For Scott, one of the hardest parts of the job — and the source of nurse burnout — is becoming emotionally attached to patients.
“I don’t know any nurse who doesn’t take emotion home with them. I’ve cried for patients going to hospice, knowing they’re going to die in a few months,” he says. “Mental health for me is more the emotional part of taking care of patients.”
He’s not alone in this struggle. LaDonna says she often wonders how patients are doing, especially as a traveler when you usually don’t see the same people at the hospital.
“It could be your last week and you think, ‘I wonder how that guy made out’,” she says. “It’s that thing in the back of your mind.”
Fortunately, Scott has learned ways to cope with an overwhelming schedule and the grief of losing a patient. He likes to decompress by going to movies on his own, and he even teaches acrylic painting classes at the hospital. LaDonna unwinds by hitting the beach (she currently works in Florida) and reading.
Figure out what helps you unwind after a stressful day at work and make time for relaxation. It’s critical to improving your mental health. The chart below shows how the nurses we surveyed cope with burnout.
4. Consider changing your schedule and traveling
If you’re struggling with an overwhelming schedule and especially with mental health issues, consider taking a travel nursing job with RNnetwork. While you may be living away from family and friends for a few months, you can set your hours, start fresh at a brand-new hospital, and travel the country while still earning a paycheck.
“Flexibility is the key to nursing anyway, because honestly, you don’t know what you’re going to. With travel nursing, I don’t have to deal with the politics, and I’m not there to fix their problems. I can tell them exactly how to fix it, but I’m not going to fix it,” LaDonna says. “In all honesty, I can do anything for 13 weeks. Knowing the end is there means you’re not trapped.”
While nurse burnout can lead to mental health concerns, these tips can help you treat and prevent these problems and have a more fulfilling career as a nurse.