Nurse burnout – a phenomenon characterized by emotional exhaustion, decreased motivation, and frustration – has always been a problem.
Nursing is a demanding, emotionally intense job that involves frequent exposure to physical and psychological dangers and requires constant reprioritization due to ever-evolving demands. Even in the best circumstances – with access to all necessary resources and a top-notch team of healthcare professionals – nurses would still be prone to burnout. In less-than-ideal circumstances, nurse burnout is virtually guaranteed.
Nurses in the United States (and most of the world) have been working under less-than-ideal circumstances for more than two years now, and nurse burnout rates have skyrocketed as a result. According to a July 2021 study by Nursing CE Central, a nursing education company, 95% of surveyed nurses reported feeling burned out within the last three years. Almost half – 47.9% -- are actively looking for a less-stressful nursing job or have left the profession.
This is problematic because nurse burnout is linked to increased medication errors, healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), and patient falls. Clinical outcomes suffer and patient dissatisfaction increases when staff experience burnout, according to a 2021 Nursing Times article. Nurse burnout also fuels the nurse shortage, forcing hospitals to spend money on recruitment and emergency staffing solutions.
Preventing and mitigating nurse burnout is a cost-effective strategy to improve patient care.
Target #1: Inefficient Use of Nurse Time
According to a report by Healthcare IT News, “administrative burden and manual tasks are among key drivers of nurse burnout.”
Nurses want to spend their time caring for patients and supporting and educating patients and their families; they do not want to spend hours searching for necessary medical equipment or filling out paperwork (even if that “paperwork” is on a computer screen). In a month, a nurse may spend 40 hours – the equivalent of a full work week – hunting down equipment.
You can’t afford to waste nurses’ time and talent on simple, non-clinical tasks like locating supplies. Furthermore, when nurses feel their time and talent are being wasted, they quickly become dissatisfied.
You can prevent and ease nurse burnout by streamlining clinical processes. Hospital asset tracking, a system that uses digital tags to keep tabs on devices, can dramatically minimize the amount of time staff spend looking for equipment, allowing them to devote their time to clinical concerns.
Target #2: Overwhelming Workload
Too much to do in too little time is a major driver of nurse burnout. Mandatory overtime – sometimes necessary to meet patient needs during staff shortages – has definitively been linked to nurse burnout. It may be a short-term solution, but frequent required overtime often leads to nurse resignations, which increase patient loads (and the risk of burnout) for remaining staff.
Evidence from California and other states with legally-mandated nurse-patient ratios show a direct link between patient loads and nurse well-being.
To ease nurse burnout, you must address nurses’ workloads. Technology that allows you to monitor clinical workflow by tracking staff movement can point to the need for additional staffing in certain areas. It can also help staffers identify (and redesign) inefficient workflow patterns. These tweaks can make a big difference to nurses’ perceived workloads. And increases in efficiency may make your hospital a more desirable place to work, which may help you recruit additional staff to assist existing workers.
Target #3: Lack of Flexibility
Nurses are highly educated healthcare professionals who often have very little control over their work conditions. This lack of control contributes to nurse burnout. Rigid scheduling requirements, in particular, feed nurse dissatisfaction.
Twelve-hour shifts are standard in many hospital settings, even though many nurses have long expressed a desire for shorter, more flexible shifts. A twelve-hour shift requires nurses with young children to find childcare for at least 13 hours – a feat that can be incredibly difficult due to the lack of good childcare options in many communities. Many nurses with school-aged children would love to work while their children are at school, but struggle with shifts that don’t allow them to get their kids to school or supervise them after dismissal.
Though it can be difficult for hospitals to institute shorter shifts and flexible scheduling, available evidence suggests that nurses who are satisfied with their schedule flexibility are less likely to experience emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Hospitals that fail to address nurse burnout will likely experience a costly exodus of experienced staff. In contrast, “hospitals that invest in burnout reduction programs...spend about 30% less on burnout-related costs,” says K. Jane Muir, a nurse researcher. “And new nurses who work at such burnout-savvy hospitals tend to stay at their jobs about 20% longer.”
Preventing and addressing nurse burnout is one of the best things you can do to improve care and cut costs.