Why nurses and midwives are at risk of burnout – and how you can help prevent it


“Burnout is a risk factor for those working in helping/caring professions and it needs to be recognised and addressed at all levels, just as other workplace hazards are assessed and risk managed,” argues Ellen Anderson, Tasmanian Project Nurse for Nursing and Midwifery Services Workforce and Wellbeing in Hospitals South.

“That means organisations have responsibilities to ensure that there are strategies and programs in place to address these issues with a strong and supportive workplace culture.”

Pointing to the Mayo Clinic’s definition, job burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, as such, but rather an occupational phenomenon emerging from ‘work-related stress which is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity’, Ellen explains.

“Burnout is a description of several physical, emotional and behavioural stress responses which people can develop due to personal organisational and professional risk factors.”

Nurses and midwives, along with other ‘helping and caring professions’ are at higher risk of burnout due to factors including vicarious trauma, empathetic strain, compassion fatigue, and moral distress, adds Ellen, a nurse for nearly two decades.

She currently works as a Project Nurse for Nursing and Midwifery Services Workforce and Wellbeing Hospitals South, developing and providing wellbeing education programs to staff, and working with stakeholders to ensure reporting and action on health concerns. She also has a role with Quelch Consultancy, working with nurses and midwives and providing tailored career coaching and advice, clinical supervision and other supports.

According to Ellen, wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility.

“We ourselves, as nursing and midwifery professionals, also need to acknowledge the risks to our health and wellbeing and take preventative action to keep ourselves and our colleagues healthy,” she says.

“We need to care for ourselves so that we can continue to care for our communities in considered and meaningful ways so that the true benefits of holistic healthcare are realised.”

Burnout has always been prevalent in the nursing and midwifery professions but has intensified due to the toll of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t have the exact numbers, but it is not hard to see the distress being described by nurses and midwives in news articles, demonstrated in ongoing workforce shortages and when having conversations with colleagues and friends,” reveals Ellen.

“I see some wonderful, talented, highly skilled, and experienced nurses talking about their distress and frustrations with work and how they no longer want to nurse and work in these environments. The loss of that knowledge and skill is heartbreaking and our communities are poorer for it.”

To counter the issue, Ellen says the professions need to collectively work together to support each other to ensure that the workforce can continue to carry out the job they love, without it being detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

“I want to see healthcare workers flourishing and fully embracing the work they do, with all its joys and difficulties. To have the support and resources to be able to tackle the difficult situations our healthcare systems and communities face with holistic and practical solutions.”

Ellen shared her top 5 tips for how nurses and midwives can tackle burnout:

  1. Identify and use support systems

Do you have good work supports, social supports, and family supports? Are you able to talk about the good and the difficult parts of your work and life with supportive people? Have you considered using EAP, finding a clinical supervisor, a mentor, etc?

We all need good social supports to support our general wellbeing. Support becomes even more important when preventing or treating burnout. Symptoms and risks of burnout often mean we feel isolated and/or isolate ourselves from others – having good support networks means that we can counteract these impacts and maintain connections with others.

  1. Reframe and re-evaluate

Has work started to become the thing you think about morning, noon, and night? When was the last time you took a break and didn’t think about work? Are you able to relax and enjoy life or are you constantly worried and stressed about the never-ending to-do list?

For some people there might need to be some boundary setting (not checking emails at home, etc.) or a need for a well-earned holiday to refresh and reset. For many people the stresses of work and home life can soon start mounting and seem to overtake the other individual elements of our individual worlds.

This is where meditation and mindfulness practices can be incredibly helpful. They can help you to train your mind to focus on the present, rather than be swept away by worries of the past and future. The practices can assist with relaxation, observation of thoughts and feelings, and a myriad of other benefits. I will never have a perfect meditation session – but I will continue to practice perfectly imperfectly regardless.

  1. Ask what your organisation is doing for you

Does your organisation have flexible work policies? Do they have a fatigue management policy for shift workers? How is your organisation ensuring that the risks for burnout are being addressed?

There are no perfect, one-size-fits all solutions to wellbeing in the workplace, but there are principles to be addressed by every workplace to ensure that everyone’s wellbeing is being looked after.

We have individual responsibilities to contribute constructively to our workplaces and colleagues and our organisations and workplaces have responsibilities to ensure that the policies, procedures, governance, and frameworks are in place to support us.

  1. Do you feel safe at work?

How are the systems in your workplace set up so that you are physically and psychosocially safe at work? Are there the correct manual handling policies and equipment available for you to safely perform your work? How are violent and aggressive incidents managed in your workplace? What supports are in place following an incident. Are you safe to speak up about concerns in your workplace or are you concerned about negative impacts?

These elements are significant contributors to our wellbeing in the workplace. Organisations have a responsibility to ensure that these elements are addressed and continually refined and improved to ensure effectiveness.

  1. Healthy diet, physical activity and quality sleep

What would wellbeing advice be without including these three elements! They are foundational cornerstones of ensuring that we can support a good level of health and wellbeing, however they are only part of the story.

We need other elements to also be present if we are to truly look at preventing and treating burnout in our healthcare workforce.

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