Fighting Nurse Burnout

Experts offer suggestions for nursing leadership to reduce the stress levels for their staff

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Demanding on the body, mind and emotions, nursing is not an easy career path. As the pandemic has made a tough career even harder, leaders in nursing have been looking at ways to reduce burnout in the nursing field.

“For me, it’s just having hobbies and other areas of interest,” said Autumn Mathews-Firnstein, a registered nurse and manager for Loretto at Sedgewick Heights Assisted Living. “My parents have horses. My daughter and mother ride. I go up there and take care of them. Animals take your stress down.”

She also tries to exercise a few times a week and eat healthfully to keep up with the job’s physical demands.

In general, the pandemic has added to the difficulties of nursing, such as additional shortages, wearing additional personal protective equipment, longer hours and more protocols for patient and worker safety. Nurses also provide more emotional support to patients unable to receive visitors.

Mathews-Firnstein has seen nurses use their personal cellphones to connect patients to family members. Currently, limited numbers of visitors are allowed with strict guidelines.

News reports have also proven stressful.

“You hear how people are dying,” she said. “You hear half the country thinks it’s a fake virus. That has been frustrating. Only 1% may die from it, but in a congregant setting it spreads like wildfire. I had COVID over the summer caught from an asymptomatic person. Some show no symptoms and then spread it.”

Despite the struggles, Mathews-Finrstein tries to stay positive.

“I knew there would be light at the end of the tunnel and once we got a vaccine, things would get better and it has,” she said. “My husband and I are vaccinated. I’m hoping this will help things. I’m a very positive person. It makes your job so much easier.”

Nancy Page chief nursing officer Upstate University Hospital, said that her organization and others are offering access to mental health resources, such as speaking with a therapist or spiritual care professional, and using physical health resources such as clubs and physical training to keep physically healthy.

“We want our nurses being comfortable sharing with the team if they had a difficult death or the person was isolated as their family is across the country,” Page said.

She added that the stressors of the pandemic may cause some nurses to decide they want a change in their careers. Page hopes that means a lateral change, not leaving the field.

“Take that break from the hospital, but remain in the profession,” she said. “You can practice in so many settings.”

With adequate staffing, nurses can take enough time to care for themselves, both with breaks while on the clock, and sufficient days off. The pandemic has exacerbated the existing nursing shortage as nurses exposed to the virus or who have tested positive may not report to work.

Deborah Welch, vice president for Mission and Community Health and Well-Being at St. Joseph’s Health, said that preventing burnout starts with the development of “strong interpersonal relationships with their team and their managers,” she said. “Team relationship-based care is our care delivery model at St. Joseph’s Health.”

St. Joseph’s launched a colleague care team toward the beginning of the pandemic to offer in-person and virtual support to stressed colleagues. The team provides real time support from the rounding team comprised of staff from departments including behavioral health, spiritual care and human resources, as well as environmental interventions and support to encourage well-being.

“During stressful times, it’s critical to seek ways to improve colleagues’ working environment and daily experience,” Welch said.

Successful relationships at home and among friends also help; however, creating boundaries and a balance between work and rest is important for maintaining these relationships.

“We encourage our colleagues to focus on self-care: putting their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being first,” Welch said. “One way to accomplish this is to participate in activities that are personally meaningful and bring you joy.”