Smiling female nurse practitioner against dark grey background
Smiling female nurse practitioner against dark grey background

Self-care for Nurses: Tips to Avoid Burn-out

Nurses are caring individuals, which is why many are naturally drawn to the profession. Although the work is rewarding, nurses are often faced with stressful workdays, long hours and unpredictable schedules.

And with the current Coronavirus pandemic, nurses all over the world are currently in extremely stressful and difficult situations with no clear end in sight. While this work is heroic, meaningful, and necessary, self-care for nurses is all the more important to avoid burn-out. 

In today’s article, we’ll discuss common challenges in the healthcare field and offer guidance on ways to prioritize self-care for nurses.


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Smiling nurse wearing glasses and holding a clipboard

What Is Self-care?

According to the World Health Organization, "self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health and prevent and deal with illness."

Self-care is the act of caring for one’s self in a holistic, intentional and important way. It means making sure your needs are being met intellectually, emotionally, physically, relationally and spiritually.

However, sometimes the focus on “self” can open the door for self-care to be misinterpreted as a selfish or egotistical endeavor. Shouldn’t I care more about the other people in my life? And as a nurse, shouldn’t I be focused first and foremost on my patients?

While these concerns stem from a good place, self-care for nurses is not selfish. Rather, it is self-preservation and allows you to have more energy for others, both at work and in your personal life. 

An IV drip in a hospital corridor with a nurse walking in the background

What Kind of Stressors Are Common for Nurses?

Working in an ever-evolving, fast-paced environment can make it difficult to prioritize self-care for nurses. This is especially difficult when nurses are faced with the expectation to consistently be at top performance for long periods of time.

Common job-related stressors in nursing include:

  • Difficult work settings
  • Short-staffed environments
  • Ambiguity regarding role expectations
  • Minimal role support
  • Challenging management situations

Nurses also endure emotionally and psychologically tolling situations. This may include witnessing the suffering and death of patients, and being around loved ones who are mourning. 

Instances of not knowing how to help patients afflicted with “biopsychosocial problems” ranked highly in study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing as a contributing stressor that nurses face.

Without periods of rest or recharge, nurses are at risk of experiencing chronic stress. Over time, this can lead to other ongoing issues including depression, premature aging and decreased immune system functioning

This is why adopting practices that offer self-care for nurses is crucial.

Close-up of a nurse writing on a clipboard

What Is Burnout and What Can Cause It?

A lack of self-care for nurses increases the chances for burn-out. And this has only become all the more pressing as nurses are working many more hours, risking their health by exposing themselves to patients infected by the Coronavirus, and dealing with the mass suffering and fear pervasive in the midst of this pandemic.

With that said, it’s important to understand what exactly burnout is. An article by Verywell Mind defines burnout as “a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of reduced professional ability.”

Burnout can occur due to experiencing one or more of these five scenarios:

  • Lack of communication and support from a manager
  • Unreasonable time pressure
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Unfair treatment at work

Burnout is specifically tied to occupational stress, but can also affect the lives of nurses outside of the workplace. It can lead to chronic physical pain, depression and anxiety, boredom, lack of interest in work and overall diminished performance.

Smiling nurse standing outside of a hospital with her arms crossed

What Are Some Examples of Self-care for Nurses?

There are a number of practices offering self-care for nurses that can mitigate workplace stress. 

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has become a popular tool in the last few years for managing stress and fostering health. Mindfulness meditation entails being “mindful” of your surroundings, feelings and thoughts

You can participate by taking 10 to 20 minutes daily to sit in a quiet, comfortable place and focus on your breathing, external surroundings and your emotional energy. It’s been proven to help reduce stress, making it a great practice of self-care for nurses. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, mindfulness meditation can have the following benefits:

  • Reorienting one's perspective
  • Offering a tool to manage stress
  • Enhancing self-awareness
  • Allowing for greater focus on the present
  • Diminishing negative emotions caused by stress and anxiety
  • Fostering patience and creativity

Male nurse sitting with crossed legs and performing breathing exercises

Breathing Exercises

Also used during meditation practice, deep breathing on its own can be an effective way to sneak in self-care for nurses during shifts. 

Breathing exercises help switch your body from a sympathetic (flight/fight) state to a parasympathetic (rest/digest) one. When your body is stressed, it releases hormones like cortisol that increase heart rate, dilate pupils, and slow down digestion. This triggers us to react quickly to threats.

When our body is chronically in a state of arousal, it can cause issues like fatigue, digestive issues, premature aging and more. Breathing exercises slow your body down and increase your oxygen levels. You can start simply by taking a deep breath through your nose, hold for a few seconds, release through your mouth and repeat for a few minutes.

Try deep breathing during your next work shift either in between patients or before you complete paperwork. You can also practice it during your daily commute. It’s a stress-relief tool that you can take anywhere.

Physical Exercise

Exercise is another effective practice of self-care for nurses. It keeps you physically healthy, extends your life-span and boosts your energy. It also helps maintain mental health.

When we exercise, our bodies produce endorphins; these are natural painkillers and can help promote sleep. It can also elevate your mood and give you more confidence.

Exercise is most effective if it’s done regularly. It also doesn’t have to be intense. Just moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day will offer benefits. It can be as simple as riding a stationary bike during a show, or taking a short walk after dinner. 

Woman lying in bed asleep with light pouring through the bedroom window

Good Sleep Hygiene

Getting uninterrupted sleep—and enough of it— is essential for promoting physical health, mental clarity and positive mood. Setting aside eight hours each night is one way to practice self-care for nurses. 

Most nurses sleep about an hour and a half less than what’s recommended. Sleep deprivation hurts our ability to focus and handle tasks. Without bodily rest, our brains miss out on recharge time and are poorly equipped for the next day. Not only does this impact our day-to-day performance, but it takes a toll on our health and cognition over time. 

Aside from enough sleep, quality is also important. Too much screen time or consuming alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime can prevent a restful night. Make sure your sleep environment is optimal, too. A dark room with a comfortable mattress and pillows can make all the difference. 

Leisure and Recreation

Scheduled leisure and recreation break up the workweek and are fun ways to practice self-care for nurses. Below are some of the benefits of participating in leisure or recreation activities:

  • Relieves stress
  • Increases fitness
  • Helps improve physical and mental health
  • Helps prevent diseases like heart disease and diabetes
  • Improves mood
  • Helps keep memory and other cognitive abilities sharp

One way to guarantee you're setting time aside for leisure and recreation is to join a scheduled activity, like a book club. However, this isn't always possible since some nurses have inconsistent and shifting work schedules. That’s all right. The key is to set aside time, even if only a little, to do something you enjoy in a way that works with your busy schedule.

A stethoscope beside a mug of coffee

Taking Breaks

As a nurse, it’s difficult to take care of other responsibilities after a 12-hour shift. You’re probably more likely to catch up on errands and housework during your days off. Even though these tasks are important, try to find a balance. Without unplugging once in a while, it can feel like you’re always working.

Taking breaks also applies to our personal lives, and is another way to prioritize self-care for nurses. After returning from the grocery store, sit down and unwind to a podcast for 20 minutes. Take a brisk walk around the block after you’ve finished paying some bills. You can also write your thoughts down in a journal before starting your day.

These short, intentional pauses help us avoid burn-out. Taking breaks has other benefits, too, including improving memory, mood and overall health

When you’re at work, breaks are especially important. If possible, taking a few minutes to step outside and breathe fresh air can help you return to your shift recharged. It will also help you stay sharp and do your best as a nurse.

Connecting with Loved Ones

As social beings, we need to spend enough time with those who matter most. A lack of connection can make us feel lonely, or put us at risk of suffering from anxiety, feelings of sadness and more.

Below are some tips for connecting with loved ones—an important practice of self-care for nurses:

  • Regularly call or video chat family or friends who are not geographically accessible 
  • Invite a loved one to join you in a shared activity, such as a walk
  • Host a meal or gathering (even remotely) at a pace that works for you (e.g. monthly, bimonthly)
  • Schedule family time with children during days off to promote bonding (e.g. play board games after dinner or watch a family movie on Sundays)

Being connected to friends and family will help you find balance—it will also help your relationships grow and stay solid overtime.

Close-up of a psychotherapist clasping the hand of her patient

Professional Help When Needed

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), roughly 20% of Americans each year experience a mental health illness. This means if you’re struggling with depression, loneliness, anxiety or stress, you’re not alone. 

Nurses often work in high-stress and difficult environments, so it’s important to be aware of how these can have negative effects on your mental health. 

With that in mind, one form of self-care for nurses includes seeking out a counselor or therapist when needed. There are many types of therapy available, and all of them are geared toward helping you develop better ways to cope with stress. 

Family nurse practitioner in hospital corridor holding a clipboard

Support at Texas Woman’s University

Texas Woman's University is a leading academic institution preparing the next generation of Family Nurse Practitioners (FNPs) nationwide. Our online MS-FNP program is flexibly designed to help working nurses advance their careers. With clinical placement assistance and a team of dedicated faculty and staff, you will be supported on your FNP journey. 

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