Avoiding Burnout in Nurse Leaders
HealthJune 30, 2017

Avoiding burnout in nurse leaders

With so many priorities, how can nurse leaders avoid burnout?

Many skilled professions require a considerable amount of on-the-job learning, but knowledge requirements have reached unrealistic levels in many jobs and work situations today. This phenomenon of “too much to learn” is not only feeding the perception of critical skills shortages in many sectors, but it can also accelerate burnout.

Look at the top of the nursing chain. Chief nursing officers (CNOs), who oversee large nursing workforces in major health systems, have knowledge-intensive jobs and very hectic schedules. With the implementation of electronic health records, CNOs are now expected to master new trends in health care information technologies and engage hospital leaders in strategic discussions about major technology investments.

This technology knowledge is piled on top of existing expertise nurse executives are expected to have about clinical practice, patient experience, finance, safety, employee relations, process improvement, leadership development, and managing interdisciplinary teams to name a few.

Manifestation of burnout

Without sufficient time to process and make sense of all that must be learned, burnout can manifest in several ways. Leaders faced with learning overload are more likely to default to intuition, rather than evidence-based decision making.

This problem is not limited to top management. Even in among staff nurses, demands to learn more can become unrealistic. Several things happen to less experienced employees when there’s too much to learn. A sense of frustration and incompetence can set in, as employees blame themselves for not knowing enough. Priorities get misplaced when it’s not clear what to learn first, and colleagues get angry if mistakes are made that hurt the group’s performance.

It’s not just technology causing this learning overload. Other factors, such as lack of communication, relentless emphasis on performance improvement, and the demands of regulatory compliance, make intense learning an essential task in most jobs today.

All of this can lead to increased stress at work, poor work-life balance, and even depression. Structuring roles with unrealistic learning requirements, combined with high performance standards, will be an increasingly costly problem. Failure to anticipate and accommodate greater learning loads could result in more costly turnover as employees quit in frustration or are forced out because they can’t perform at the required level.

Keeping burnout at bay

Nurse burnout is something that nursing leadership has been dealing with for many years. It's not new. Maureen Swick, RN, CNO of the American Hospital Association and CEO of the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) has a few ideas about preventing nurse burnout.

Added to the everyday stresses nurses face is the issue of new technologies, and how to implement them. Swick is going to be participating in the National Academy of Medicine group to look at clinician burnout. She shares some of the best practices that nursing leadership has implemented throughout the years to rein in burnout and keep nurses happy and healthy in their careers.

  • Staffing - it’s always critical to ensure that hospitals have the right number and the right mix of staff to adequately serve the patient population, says Swick. Nurse/patient ratios can cause considerable headaches for CNOs and nursing leaders. 
  • Teamwork – Not just with physicians, but other clinical staff as well, is another key component.  When you're collaborating closely with others, it makes the work a lot easier, and creates a better environment for patients and families alike.
  • Resiliency is also a critical trait for those in nurse leadership positions. If you look at the health care environment and the rapid pace of change, nurse leaders need to be role models. “Being resilient through my 30-plus years of nursing has kept me in a healthy and positive mindset,” Swick said in an interview with the American Hospital Association.
  • In the last five or six years, the pace of change has been incredible, and it takes a strong, positive, and healthy leader to manage the team through that. The more resilient you can be, the better you can avoid burnout while improving care.
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