12 Signs of Nurse Burnout | Symptoms and Characteristics

Stress is a normal part of operating in the healthcare profession.

However, nurses experiencing burnout have a much more difficult coping with work and personal life.

Nurse burnout leads to various physical, emotional, and behavioral changes.

For instance, nurses experiencing burnout report a loss of motivation and feeling exhausted, anxious, detached, and hopeless.

They also report various physical symptoms, including bodily pain, reduced immunity, poor sleep, and constant tiredness.

Understanding the signs of occupational fatigue is vital for preventing and treating burnout when and if it occurs.

It’s also essential for maintaining good health, a positive mindset, and optimal work performance.

This article covers the symptoms, characteristics, and signs of nurse burnout to identify and resolve these issues quickly.

Common Indications of Burnout:

  1. Absenteeism
  2. Anxiety
  3. Chronic frustration
  4. Depression
  5. Detachment/Disengagement
  6. Difficulty sleeping
  7. Hopelessness
  8. Inability to cope effectively
  9. Physical Pain and Illness
  10. Poor communication
  11. Relationship problems/conflicts
  12. Tiredness and lack of energy

The following section covers each indicator in detail to help determine whether you’re experiencing burnout at work.

Each symptom can occur independently. However, several traits usually overlap when experiencing burnout.

1. Absenteeism

Absenteeism is a typical indicator of nurse burnout.

Nurses who frequently call out of work want to avoid stress, hopelessness, overwhelm, frustration, detachment, and depression.

In addition, the physical symptoms of burnout lead nurses to feel constantly tired, exhausted, and ill.

It results in nurses repeatedly calling out of work to emotionally and physically recover and sustain their mental health.

Unfortunately, absenteeism rarely eliminates burnout.

Instead, it only delays the severity of the symptoms because the issues still exist and are present when they return to work.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety is a constant feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness.

It often occurs when an individual anticipates or experiences negative situations they believe are out of control.

In healthcare, it’s common to encounter a broad range of uncontrollable events, especially during a patient influx due to unexpected circumstances.

It includes mass casualties, external disasters, constant medical emergencies, dangerous work settings, and pandemics.

Anxiety also occurs due to poor communication, ineffective management, and work overload from managing more medical responsibilities and patients than is reasonable for extended periods.

The nursing shortage further impacts anxiety among healthcare workers because a lack of adequate staffing puts a heavier workload on existing medical workers. 

3. Chronic Frustration

Frustration in healthcare often results from issues among coworkers or patients.

It can occur due to poor communication, unresolved conflicts, staffing shortages, work overload, and unfairness/favoritism.

It also results from poor working conditions, workplace violence, and good management.

Chronic frustration causes numerous emotional, mental, and behavioral issues.

It includes decreased employee morale, reduced quality of care for patients, increased risk of medical errors, diminished performance, and burnout.

Healthcare facilities must develop systems to enhance employee performance by providing adequate staffing, management, and tools necessary to support nurses.

4. Depression

Numerous behavioral changes occur when nurses experience depression.

For instance, they become withdrawn, isolate themselves from others, procrastinate, blame others and even use substances to relieve emotional despair.

Depression is a significant issue affecting all areas of life, including professional and personal.

It’s more common among nurses in highly stressful occupations like emergency care or the ICU than in low-stress careers such as school nursing.

Over time depression leads to low performance, an inability to cope with everyday responsibilities, cynicism, poor communication, and mental health issues.

Depression is extremely serious, affecting nurses, coworkers, family, friends, and patients.

In worst-case scenarios, depression leads to a lack of will to sustain even the most rudimentary necessities for life.

Those experiencing depression should immediately consult a mental health expert or therapist to address the cause of their depression.

5. Emotional Detachment/Isolation

Detachment is a coping mechanism some nurses experience to maintain performance when feeling overwhelmed.

It allows them to focus during difficult times and manage various work responsibilities.

With that said, long-term emotional detachment can have various adverse effects.

It includes a sense of isolation, loneliness, and separation from others.

Long-term emotional detachment can cause aloneness, seclusion, misunderstanding, self-doubt, hopelessness, and defeat in work settings.

It also causes nurses to become detached from their emotions, making it difficult to determine why they feel the way they do.

Over time emotional detachment leads to a loss of motivation, cynicism, and no longer feeling a sense of accomplishment at work or in other areas of life.

Emotional detachment/isolation is often a sign of depression, a severe mental health issue that a mental health expert must immediately address.

From a work perspective, nurses experiencing detachment become less likely to communicate, express their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, and act team-oriented.

It significantly reduces patient care, negatively impacts morale among medical staff, and causes mental health issues for the nurse experiencing emotional detachment/isolation.

6. Difficulty Sleeping

Difficulty sleeping is closely tied to work stress and burnout and has numerous adverse physical and psychological effects.

It includes reduced focus and awareness, diminished mental/emotional mood, ineffective communication, lowered productivity, and a lack of motivation.

A lack of sleep also compromises the immune system and various hormones in the body.

Accordingly, improving sleep by decreasing work stress and burnout is essential for performance and mental health.

It would be best if healthcare facilities ensured nurses receive adequate rest periods, mental health resources, support, and management.

Unfortunately, nurses cannot always count on their employers to provide the help, services, and support they need to be effective in the workplace.

As a result, it’s essential not to accept more work hours if they’re already stressed, exhausted, and tired.

In addition, finding a mental health expert, support group, friendships, and pleasurable activities outside the workplace is necessary for sustaining a positive outlook. 

7. Hopelessness

Hopelessness is a feeling that things will not get better no matter what you do.

A sense of hopelessness is detrimental to nurses’ mental health, especially in emergency/critical care departments where illness and death are common.

It often results from the belief that they cannot make a difference, improve healthcare outcomes, or avoid/prevent highly stressful situations no matter what they do.

Over time, hopelessness causes self-doubt, low motivation, mental and physical exhaustion, poor communication, and less will to live.

These beliefs negatively impact patient care, effective communication, and teamwork among healthcare workers.

In addition, hopelessness deeply affects the nurse’s perspective on life and how they manage interpersonal relationships.

It makes it difficult for friends, family, and coworkers to understand them, provide adequate help and alleviate the nurse’s despair.

For nurses experiencing distress, it’s vital to step back from situations that feel out of control and remove yourself when you believe you cannot make a difference.

Instead, focus on things within your control and take action on areas where you can make a difference. 

You can’t permanently remove yourself from all healthcare situations.

However, you can communicate with team members and management to let them know about your mental health.

That way, they can work with you to place you in less stressful situations.

You can also consult a mental health expert and consider making specific career/life changes if necessary.

It may include reducing work hours, changing careers, finding more fulfillment outside work, or making other mentally positive decisions.

Helping others is extremely rewarding and fulfilling.

Regardless, it isn’t worth your declining mental health because it negatively impacts you, the patients your serve, and the relationships you’ve developed.

Help others if you can, but not at the expense of your well-being.

8. Inability to Cope Effectively

Healthcare work impacts every nurse differently regarding mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

Consequently, some healthcare workers find it difficult to cope effectively with specific medical and personal situations.

Workload and operating in specific work settings/departments also profoundly impact a nurse’s sense of accomplishment and effectiveness.

For instance, working in critical care, a neonatal intensive care unit, or an emergency department is more stressful than being a camp nurse.

These nurses frequently experience emotionally stressful illnesses, injuries, and death situations.

As a result, they’re more prone to having difficulty coping with the stresses and experiences of their departments.

Some nurses have excellent interpersonal relationships,  support systems, and tools to cope with the experiences they face in their department.

It allows them to understand that they cannot prevent every negative outcome and are positively improving the lives of those they serve.

Accordingly, developing coping skills and strategies is essential for maintaining good mental health and a positive outlook.

Nevertheless, these situations overwhelm nurses unable to cope successfully with unavoidable and undesirable healthcare circumstances.

Nursing is a multifaceted occupation offering over 100 career specializations for those who need a career change.

As a result, their numerous opportunities for nurses to pick a specialization that suits their personality, traits, and lifestyle.

Nurses unhappy with their current profession need to look into other healthcare domains that mentally and emotionally suit them well.

9. Physical Pain and Illness

Burnout causes various physical symptoms, including tiredness, a lack of energy, insomnia, hormone imbalance, and physical pain.

Over time, burnout compromises mental health and physical well-being and decreases immunity, raising the risk of various illnesses and diseases.

Lowered immunity means it’s easier for hard-working nurses to become sick, reducing their work effectiveness and ability to provide effective patient care.

It also profoundly affects the nurse’s overall health and personal relationships, especially with family.

Even nurses who remain in good health experience difficulty sleeping, poor posture, physical aches, and fatigue due to burnout.

The physical symptoms of burnout are often one of the first signs of long-term stress.

The body is brilliant, providing valuable feedback when something is wrong.

It can manifest physical discomfort, pain, and other signals to let people know when to rest.

Unfortunately, healthcare is a naturally stressful environment for millions of nurses, and removing themselves from distressing situations isn’t always easy.

It’s necessary to make savvy decisions early on and throughout your career to reduce stress and improve mental well-being.

For instance, limiting overtime to ensure adequate recovery time, developing great relationships, and finding fulfilling hobbies can enhance your mood and satisfaction.

Some nurses may also consider changing careers for less stressful occupations with a better work-life balance. 

10. Ineffective Communication

Inadequate communication results from mental health issues and creates numerous consequences in healthcare settings.

For instance, low motivation, physical exhaustion, emotional detachment, and hopelessness reduce effective communication.

Poor communication may also occur due to not developing adequate social skills at a young age or while in college.

Accordingly, insufficient communication negatively impacts patient care, morale, and work performance.

Numerous medical errors and mistakes also become more common when communication and cooperation suffer.

Nursing is a very cooperative and dynamic occupation requiring excellent communication.

As a result, it’s vital to maintain good mental health, minimize burnout and develop practical social skills.

11. Relationship Problems/Conflicts

Relationship problems and conflicts with coworkers, family, and friends are common indicators of burnout.

Long-term work stress reduces positivity, physical energy, and mental well-being in all areas of life.

Nurses experiencing burnout may spend less quality time with meaningful relationships.

In addition, they may experience negative thoughts and feelings about events they feel are out of their control.

Relationship issues reduce a nurse’s capacity to cope with stress and recover adequately inside and outside work.

Nurses must learn to decompress and utilize supportive relationships effectively to maintain a good mental attitude and outlook.

12. Tiredness and Lack of Energy

Constant tiredness and lack of energy result from constant mental/physical stress, and a lack of adequate rest and recovery can lead to burnout.

As a result, it’s vital to receive adequate rest and recovery by saying no to tasks and overtime if you need to relax.

Earning extra money isn’t worth long-term stress because it makes everyday work responsibilities more problematic and less tolerable.

In addition, getting help from a mental health expert if you are experiencing signs of nurse burnout is highly beneficial.

They’ll help you determine the causes of your burnout and develop strategies to combat work-related stress and fatigue.

Finally, develop support groups among friends and family to decompress after work.