Solving the burnout problem among healthcare workers — 5 shared responsibilities

Mark Aitken & Celeste Pinney
Mark & Celeste explore the collective responsibilities of nurses, midwives and other healthcare workers to prevent burnout in our professions.

Solving the burnout problem among healthcare workers

This edition focuses on the sensitive and important topic of burnout. We are concerned about the increasing number of reports of midwives, nurses and students experiencing burnout. Tackling burnout is a shared responsibility. It requires us to collectively put our heads together to develop prevention strategies and create workplace cultures where it is OK to say “I think I’m burning out” and to reach out for support.

Here are 5 responsibilities we have to take to tackle burnout: 

1. Understand burnout

Burnout is an insidious and damaging condition caused by work-related stress. The last few years have been a significant challenge for nurses, midwives, and our students. We continue to be stretched. We are working in ‘pressure cooker’ situations that affect the health of many. We must be able to recognise the signs of burnout and work out our own strategies to avoid it.

So what is burnout? You probably know instinctively.

“It’s the emotional exhaustion,” say Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their ground-breaking book: Burnout Solve Your Stress Cycle. They explain:

“When we told women we were writing a book called Burnout, nobody ever asked. What’s burnout?”... “We all have an intuitive sense of what burnout is; we know how it feels in our bodies and how our emotions crumble in the grip of it.”

Burnout was first coined as a technical term by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975. He identified three components, as summarised by the Nagoskis in their introduction:

  1. Emotional exhaustion: fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long:
  2. Depersonalization: the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion; and
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment: an unconquerable sense of futility; feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

Our colleague Elle Brown found this book so insightful that she wrote a recommendation for this issue of the newsletter — check it out: Book Rec: Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle by Emily & Amelia Nagoski

2. Know the difference between burnout and stress

We all experience stress. If it is temporary we can bounce back, function well, be engaged, connected and in control. But when work-related stress becomes chronic and unrelenting it can lead to burnout.

Burnout can be difficult to detect as it is subtle and progresses gradually over time. It’s important to know how to check your stress temperature to identify when normal stress is becoming dangerous. Check out this 2020 episode of our podcast, where mental health first aider Sam Eddy taught us how to monitor our stress levels and identify circuit breakers: Dealing with stress during crisis with Sam Eddy.

3. Recognise burnout in our professions

People who work in nursing and midwifery are at heightened risk of developing burnout. We must pay attention to how and why burnout manifests in our industry. Recent research shows that 76% of midwives are currently in a state of burnout. We don’t have the equivalent number for nurses — but we know from the conversations that we have with colleagues and callers that it is concerningly high.

In this edition Celeste Pinney explores burnout in our professions. Hosting the podcast for the first time, she invited registered psychologist and executive coach Sharee Johnson to join her for an important conversation about preventing and recovering from burnout and how we can each get involved in disrupting the burnout epidemic. Check out the episode: Burnout in nursing and midwifery explored with Sharee Johnson.

Celeste also wrote about her personal experience of burnout as a working midwife and examined why midwives are so at risk. Read on to discover more about this wicked problem and how we can act proactively to prevent or recover from burnout, or support others we’re concerned about.

Read what Celeste has to say: Why midwives are at risk of burnout — and what we can do about it 

4. Prioritise your health and avoid burnout – here are 5 tips

We are educated to care for others, often at the expense of our own self-care. Taking care of our health actively and intentionally is an important part of avoiding burnout. 

Try these 5 tips for prioritising your health:

  1. Make ‘wellness first’ a mantra to live by. Avoiding burnout is easier than recovering from it. 
  2. Understand the pillars of good health – enough sleep, healthy eating, exercise, rest and social connection.
  3. Assess your own health and start building habits that work for you.
  4. Use our wellness plan template to plot your road map to good health.
  5. Become a health and wellbeing champion at your workplace.

Overwhelmed? Don’t know where to start? We are here to support you — call us: 1800 667 87.

5. Share the responsibility for tackling burnout

We all have a responsibility to build workplaces that promote health and wellbeing for workers. All of us can contribute empathy and understanding to our colleagues and do our best to use effective communication styles that ease stress by promoting good working relationships. 

In particular, managers can help prevent staff burnout by working to measure and minimise stress and create safe and healthy workplaces. Nino Di Pasquale, experienced mental health nurse and leader, tells us how: Managers of nurses and midwives – you can support your employee’s mental health.  

Our friends at Ausmed have also shared useful and practical tips on how workplace leaders and managers can get involved and be at the forefront in the mission to eradicate burnout as a workplace hazard. Find out more: Caring for healthcare professionals and workers.

More resources for burnout prevention and recovery

Here are some more resources you can check out:

  • Mark has often offered strategies on how to make your health and wellbeing a priority:
  • Podcast: Burnout and beyond with Athol Hann: In 2020 we spoke to Athol Hann, a nurse who shared his story about burnout and how he recovered: “Experiencing burnout was one of the hardest things that I’ve gone through in my life… I’ve found myself compelled to share my journey because I know I’m not alone in having these feelings, and I don’t want others to go through this — or feel like they are alone.”
    • Check out more of Athol’s work on burnout:
Get involved

At Nurse & Midwife Support we are committed to doing everything we can to eradicate burnout from our professions. Join our community of practice to create burnout-free workplaces.

Contact [email protected] to learn more.

Tackling and presenting burnout matters because the health of all nurses, midwives and students matters!

If you are experiencing burnout or are concerned about a nurse/midwife, we are here for you. Contact Nurse & Midwife Support on 1800 667 877 or email us.

Mark Aitken and Celeste Pinney

Nurse & Midwife Support
Stakeholder Engagement Team