How to cope with stress and burnout as a nurse

29 April 2020 By Michael Bowyer

A nurse’s role can be stressful on a ‘normal’ day, however with the outbreak of COVID-19 nurses are working longer and harder than ever before in modern times. With increasing hours, tougher workload, and the threat of the virus itself recognising stress and coping with it to prevent burnout as a nurse is essential.

Those at the forefront of care, the nurses, doctors, and healthcare staff, are most at risk of having to self-isolate. Not only is this a stressful scenario but places additional pressure on the remaining healthcare staff. As nurses go in and out of self-isolation and quarantine, others are left to pick up their duties and fill in. For many, the extreme effects of stress and burnout are a very real likelihood.

In the face of such pressure, our healthcare heroes deserve all the support they can get from the public and their employers. As such we have put together a useful guide on how to recognise the symptoms of stress and burnout and some tips on how to deal with them.

What are the effects of stress and burnout on nurses?

With nurses being asked to do more than ever before in modern times, unhappy or over-worked nurses are becoming frustrated and can become disenfranchised with the profession. This is often caused by consistent high-pressure situations like those we are currently experiencing. Below are the common manifestation of nurses suffering burn out:

  • Depression

  • Lack of motivation

  • Lethargy

  • Cynical and negative attitude

  • Headaches

How can I combat stress as a nurse?

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic eliminating stress as a nurse is not a completely achievable goal. But there are some useful things you can do to help reduce your stress levels and make it easier to cope with.

Talk about it

Given the intensity of a shift, many nurses may want to come home and switch off but taking ten minutes at the end of a shift to talk to a colleague, friend or family can help release tension and mental anxiety. Talking to fellow healthcare professionals can help you establish a sense of community and support; you can aid this by injecting humour into your day as well. As well as gaining emotional support from fellow nurses, this can also lead to solutions you would never have thought about. When you get home, connecting with your loved ones can be grounding and help you disengage from the hectic pace of work.

We are also here to support you during this pandemic, our team are here if you need someone to talk to and our Head of Clinical Performance, Lorraine Gray, who has over 35 years experiences of working in clinical practice, will be available on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday at 12:0013:00 if you want to discuss anything with a fellow clinician.

Gentle exercise

Exercise has been proven to release endorphins that can alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety. It’s probably not practical to expect to be able do a 5k run after a 12 hour shift, but a ten-minute walk on your break that raises your heart rate can really help clear your mind and make you feel better.

Remember the big picture

Finding time throughout a shift to remember that life goes on beyond the hospital will help you gain a feeling of perspective beyond the current stressful situation. Hobbies, family events and seeing friends can help you relax and give you something positive to look forward to. Given the current isolation and social distancing measures in place, this can be done virtually or over the phone.

Breathing exercises

If it is not feasible to fit exercise into your daily routine, you can try some breathing exercises during a shift or to and from work. They have been proven to shift your brain from generating that anxiety-riddled fight or flight feeling, reduce your heart rate and help you feel calmer and more mentally resilient. You will find the most benefit if you do it regularly as part of your daily routine. Here is one simple breathing exercise that may help you, there are many more out there.

  1. Make yourself as comfortable as you can. Loosen any clothing that restricts your breathing.

  2. If you are:

    1. Lying down, place your arms away from your sides, with the palms up, straighten or bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor, roughly hip width apart.

    2. Sitting down, place your arms on the chair arms with your feet flat on the ground, roughly hip width apart.

  3. Breath as deep down as comfortable, without forcing it, preferably through your nose rather than your mouth.

  4. Breathe in gently and regularly, some find it useful to count from 1-5.

  5. Without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, again counting from 1-5 if you find this useful

  6. Continue for 3-5 minutes.

Self care tips from the RCN

  • Make sure you get your news from a trusted source

  • Limit your exposure to social media if you find it is heightening your anxiety

  • Think self-care, sleep, routine, rest. You may be working more so look after your physical health

  • Stay connected with you family and friends by phone, email, or video calls

  • Check local authorities for childcare plans in your area

Well-being apps

The RCN are offering free access to well-being apps for all members ntill December 2020, these include:

  • Headspace

  • Unmind

  • Sleepio and Daytime

  • Dealing with Death

Know when to get help

The techniques above will not work for everyone and some nurses will experience burnout and overwhelming stress. It can be very difficult for nurses to change gear and seek help for themselves when they are so used to helping others. Knowing when to seek help and advice is the most important way for nurses to tackle stress in the workplace. Many organisations offer support programmes to help.

The NHS has launched a national mental health hotline for all staff tackling COVID-19. Staff will be able to call or text a free number staffed by thousands of specially trained volunteers, to receive support and advice for the pressures they face every day during the global health emergency. The volunteers will listen to NHS staff and give psychological support to those in need. The phone line, 0300 131 7000, will be open between 7am and 11pm every day, while the text service will be available 24/7 by simply texting FRONTLINE to 85258.

Thank you

Thank you to all healthcare heroes during this pandemic, from Nurses to GPs, from Paramedics to Porters, we are all truly amazed around the care, compassion and dedication you continue to show during this pandemic.

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