The health care system has been in crisis for a long time, which has led to nursing burnout, compassion fatigue, and even post-traumatic stress. But nurses can’t wait for the system alone to address the problems. It’s incumbent on individuals to devise ways to thrive in the workplace. That entails, among other things, cultivating protective factors like hope and compassion.
That was one of the main messages of the keynote speech delivered by Judy Sheehan, MSN, RN-BC, at the Fall Nursing Conference on December 9. Sheehan is director of nursing education at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, and primary editor and a co-author of “Inpatient Psychiatric Nursing, Second Edition: Clinical Strategies and Practical Interventions.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the system’s problems—in particular, nursing shortages—creating an environment in which stress levels skyrocketed, according to Sheehan.
“People would come into the hospital with no symptoms but then develop them. The whole unit became contaminated, many nurses got sick, and we took on a lot more work because of how many of our colleagues were ill,” she said. “We’ve been called heroes, but we’re exhausted and isolated from one another.”
While it’s tempting to wait for institutions to come up with solutions for burnout, it’s important that nurses have a sense of agency.
“If we wait for health care institutions to change, it will take a long time, and the cost may be an increase in helplessness, hopelessness, and despair—a perfect recipe for depression,” said Sheehan.
“The most important thing for a person is to feel that they have hope, that they have some control over something, that there is something that can be done.”
So, what can individual nurses do?
A Systems Perspective
Sheehan looks at the burnout problem from a systems perspective, a theory that stresses interconnectedness and the careful balancing of inputs and outputs. For her, one of the first things she does to combat burnout is decrease her own output.
“When I get overwhelmed by the demands made on me, I intentionally forget my phone, lose my calendar, and go to bed for a while,” she explained. “I decrease my output so I can strengthen my resources.”
Minimizing negative input is another strategy for maintaining equilibrium, according to Sheehan. “Reduce your interaction with negative friends or co-workers. Avoid turning on the news before going to sleep, be careful what you view online, or put yourself on a media diet altogether,” she said. “I don’t watch programs that make me tense. I listen to knitting podcasts.”