NPR documentary explores how nurses handle stress, burnout

Nurses outnumber doctors by six to one, spend more time with patients and, with an expanding scope of practice, are the backbone of American healthcare. A new documentary says these factors lead nurses to feel stressed, overburdened and unsupported.

The new Humankind public radio documentary Resilient Nurses explores the ways in which nurses handle the daily work stresses. The documentary includes several first-hand accounts and ideas for combatting stress.

"If you're doing 10- or 12-hour shifts, you know, it's brutal on your legs," said Marion Tinsley, a nurse at the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. "You go home, you hear the cardiac bells in your head. I would hear that for like two hours, you know, driving home. ... It took at least two hours for the dinging to stop in my head!"

These 12-hour shifts can lead to sleep deprivation and in turn cause physical problems like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, FierceHealthcare previously reported. Seventy-seven percent of nurses reported they do not eat properly on a regular basis.

"I can't explain how exhausting it is to be a nurse on an inpatient unit …our nurses forget to drink water," said Chris Griffin, B.S.N., R.N., a nurse educator on the pulmonary unit at Children's Hospital in Colorado, in the documentary.

Still, despite burnout, unfriendly workplaces and emotional distress, most nurses report satisfaction. This attitude is "attributable in part to who nurses are: typically very dedicated professionals drawn to a field where they can genuinely care for people," Humankind's David Freudberg wrote in a piece for Huffington Post.

This idea can lead nurses to feel pressured to appear caring at all times, leading to compassion fatigue. Nurses who often display compassion are much more likely to experience emotional exhaustion. "What we need to do now is develop ways for nurses to find emotional boundaries between themselves and their patients," said Sandra Leggetter, researcher at the University of Bedfordshire, FierceHealthcare reported.

Not all nurses agree, however. "You know what? It's the opposite of that. It's that nurses are working in systems that keep them from having these moments with [patients]--a caring occasion, a moment where two people see each other, and meet in a place that is beyond time and space," said Janet Quinn, Ph.D., nurse and founder of HaelanWorks in Lyon, Colorado, in the documentary.

Patients "need to know they're seen, they're heard, they matter,"  Quinn said.

Many nurses turn to prayer or meditation to handle the stress, according to the documentary. Other proposed methods of combatting stress and fatigue include creative arts, like knitting, writing and dancing and even playing with cats or dogs for a few minutes, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- listen to the documentary
- read the article

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