Nurse's Station

Do you have “nurse brownout”?


iStockphoto + Scrubs

You hear a lot about nurses experiencing “burnout” over their jobs. Sometimes you hear the term “brownout” as well. What are these odd, electrical-sounding terms, and what do they mean? And what do you do if they happen to you?

“Burnout” is defined by the folks at Mayo as a state of extreme emotional, mental and physical exhaustion combined with doubts about whether you’re competent to do your job. I think of it as the flu combined with a bad case of the Not-Good-Enoughs.

“Brownout” isn’t as common a term—yet. It’s that state of being just before burnout happens, when you’re feeling cynical, tired, less productive and fighting off a “Who gives a blank?” attitude. If you don’t take care of it, it’ll turn into burnout. Even if you do take steps, it’s hard to shake, as brownout seems to be the default mental state of a lot of people in stressful jobs, like nursing.

So, what do you do? How do you remain productive and cheerful and a good coworker?

Keep in mind I’m not an expert by any means. All I know is what I’ve seen from years of working in very high-stress situations with close-knit groups of people.

The first thing that I find essential to preventing burnout is having friends and interests outside of your line of work. My friends include cat rescuers, artists, bicycle mechanics, administrative assistants, a minister and a couple of people who grow organic veggies and juggle, but no nurses. I didn’t do that on purpose, but I find that it’s invaluable to have people around who, when you get off work, will ensure that you’re really off work. You can’t talk shop with jugglers and cat fanciers.

You can also remind yourself to prioritize emergencies. Part of what leads to burnout and keeps us in a constant brownout state is the push and pull of a bunch of different people, all of whom have something absolutely critical for us to do right now. If “Airway, Breathing, Circulation” is the way to save a life, then “Patient, Coworker, Administration” is the way to save your sanity. An administrative emergency—we have to get all the laundry carts out of the halls!—is no emergency at all.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you must have a life outside of work. There has to be something you can do once you punch out that’ll take you completely away from healthcare. It doesn’t matter if it’s gardening, skydiving or just taking the dog for a walk every night—what’s important is that this thing will remind you that there’s more to life than work. It’ll give you something to look forward to and help top up your spiritual and emotional tanks when they’re getting low.

If nothing helps and you find yourself deeply cynical, wishing for an earthquake while you’re on your drive in or calling in sick randomly, take time off. Sometimes a long weekend away from the grind can do more for you than any number of articles in nursing magazines.

Agatha Lellis
Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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