Nurses take care of people every day, but who takes care of them?
Nothing begs that question more than a photo of Texas nurse Caitlin Nixon, 29, after she’d worked four shifts back-to-back. Her sister, Laura McIntyre, shared the candid shot in a post on Facebook, and it went viral soon after.
"caty just wrapped up her fourth shift in a row. that's around 53+ hours in four days. that's not including the 1.5 hours she's in the car each day. she usually doesn't get a chance to eat lunch or even drink much water. (& she has to dress like a blueberry.. i mean, come on). she is so good at what she does that she often forgets how to take care of herself while she's taking care of her patients,” McIntyre wrote on Facebook.
Nixon has worked in Medical City McKinney’s labor and delivery department for a little over 6 years, a job that usually goes smoothly. But the day her sister took the photo, she’d worked with a patient who delivered a stillborn baby, in addition to working more than 50 hours in 4 days. The strain of her job overwhelmed her.
“In that moment, I felt so helpless. I was finally able to let myself really feel for the first time that day. Often, we have to suppress our own emotions to take care of our patients, and by the end of that particular day, I needed to let it all out,” Nixon tells WebMD in an email.
Emotional exhaustion is one of the main signs of burnout, a problem that affects about a third of nurses and about half of doctors in the U.S. The problem can have significant consequences not only for health care professionals, but for their patients, too.
“Unfortunately, it can cause us to be less sympathetic toward patients, potentially slower at decision-making, and ultimately lead to increased stress,” Nixon says.
Long hours and the high stress of jobs in the health care field are driving factors behind the burnout many nurses feel. In a recent survey by the American Nurses Association (ANA), over half of nurses said they often have to work through breaks or arrive early or stay late to get their work done. Fifty percent said they felt obligated to come to work even when they were sick or injured.
Kendra McMillan, a registered nurse and senior policy advisor for the ANA, says she remembers working back-to-back 12-hour shifts and being physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted.
“You want the best outcome for your patients because you don’t always know what’s going to happen to them when they leave,” McMillan says.
Health care industry leaders are trying to come up with ways to address burnout among many types of professionals. McMillan says the ANA advocates for a few solutions, including getting rid of mandatory overtime, ensuring nurses have time for meals and rest breaks, and “the right to refuse an assignment without repercussion.” And actively seeking nurses’ input is essential, she says.
“Nurses need to be involved in decision-making, because they can best speak to what it’s like,” McMillan says.
Even though some days can be harder than others, Nixon remains positive about the part nurses play.
“I’d just like to remind nurses to keep compassion at the forefront of their mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own lives when we have so many things to do, but we have to remember that we are here with the opportunity to be such a light in the darkness of disease,” Nixon says.