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Can Talking to Your Patients Help You Avoid Burnout?


Burnout can be a much more serious issue than most people realize. Many nurses are working around the clock in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. From the demands of overtime to the stress of caring for infected patients, working on the front lines can take a toll on your mental and physical health. 

Around a third of nurses directly caring for patients experience symptoms of burnout, including intense exhaustion, fatigue, a lack of control over their surroundings, and feelings of disillusionment. The pandemic will likely accelerate this trend across the country, especially for nurses working in the ICU.

Burnout leads to poor patient outcomes and satisfaction rates. It also increases the chances of medical errors and other mistakes that can endanger both providers and patients.

When we talk about burnout in the healthcare industry, it usually becomes a conversation about extended schedules, nurse-patient ratios, and nurses needing more time off, but that just isn’t an option for many of those working so hard.

A recent op-ed from Jason Han, a cardiac surgery resident at a hospital in Philadelphia, counters this narrative. He believes talking to patients and learning their stories can help nurses and providers avoid burnout on the job.

From Exhaustion to Inspiration

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Han recounts another long day at the hospital. After working 12 hours in the operating room, hunger, fatigue, and thirst start to replace the feeling of adrenaline. At this point, he’s been on-call for two weeks and he’s just about to leave the hospital and get some much-needed rest.

At the last second, he gets called to the ICU where he attended to a young man that had just suffered a major heart attack. The man needed urgent medical attention as his heart rapidly deteriorated.

Han’s first reaction was frustration. He was this close to going home, until this young man altered his plans. Then, Han looked up to see around 20 family members in the room, all of them waiting for the young man who’d just had a heart attack. Han learned that the man was in excellent health before the incident, a great shock to the entire family.

Seeing so many people care for one person touched Han in ways he didn’t see coming. He quickly saw the young patient as a son, husband, father, and brother, desperately fighting for his life, instead of just another face needing medical care.

This experience changed his outlook in an instant. At that moment, caring for patients became more than just a job for Han. It was his moral and professional duty to care for this man.

A Possible Solution to Burnout

Han says this moment changed his opinion of burnout. He started reflecting on the paradox of the problem. Instead of assuming nurses need more time off, he says a change in perspective may be more effective, at least in the moment when nurses don’t have the luxury of going home.

“When I am nearing burnout, I find the solution is more philosophical than getting more rest or doing more hobbies. What we need is a reminder of meaningfulness, a restoration of faith.”

If you feel a wave of burnout or fatigue coming on at work, Han suggests:

  • Forming meaningful relationships with patients and their family members by taking the time to listen to their stories. Details matter when someone’s life is in your hands. It’s not just about helping them recover from disease, it’s about making your patients feel seen and heard.
  • Following up with patients, even if they are no longer in your care. For example, hearing that a patient is doing much better now that they’ve left the hospital may lift your spirits on the job, even if it’s no longer your job to look after them.
  • Reflecting on the most rewarding experiences of your career. Maybe it was the young patient you nursed back to health when you were just starting out, or an older patient suffering from a chronic condition that liked to tease you when you came into the room.
  • Think of your patients as human beings, instead of just stats on a chart. As the hours go by, these moments can help you fend off fatigue when nothing else seems to do the trick.

Han is quick to point out that this idea isn’t meant to replace restrictions on overtime and overwork. Nurses should still have time off to rest and maintain a proper work-life balance.

However, you can use these ideas to stay engaged on the floor when you’re nearing the end of a long day. If some of your colleagues are suffering from burnout, encourage them to focus on the more human aspects of the job.

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