Facing the Facts about Burnout

Burnout, fatigue, and emotional exhaustion are common symptoms of overworked nurses or doctors.  Everyone must experience burnout at work from time to time, but if you were a patient in a hospital, would you want that burned out worker caring for you when a mistake could seriously jeopardize your health? Releasing the Blue Butterfly


Sarah J. Tracy (2000) explains burnout in her article titled “Becoming a Character for Commerce,” published in Management Communication Quarterly as, “a general wearing out or alienation from the pressures of work.”  She discusses how burnout is very much a workplace issue as a result of many hours, few breaks, and often from continuous involvement with customers or supervisors.  


In a blog for Scientific American Mind magazine, Kate Wong writes about residents who mailed burnout related surveys to the University of Washington Affiliated Hospitals Internal Medicine Residency program, regarding burnout.  She found that out of 115 surveys, an astonishing 76 percent suffer from burnout. The authors of her study revealed that staff were at least two times more likely to provide below average patient care than those who did not report burnout.


While I was working for a company a couple years ago, during times of heavy workload  the managers would institute mandatory overtime.  Production may have risen some due to the overtime hours, but the managers still were not fully satisfied with the results because the morale of many employees deteriorated as they grew tired and felt overworked.  Mistakes were more often made during these times of high workload as department members would tend to cut corners on certain procedures to complete work faster.  The fatigue within the department leads to low morale among the employees and dissatisfaction in their jobs.  


The consequences of burnout on nurses or residents can be very similar.  Wong found that weekly medical errors were more prevalent for burned out staff, or that patients were being released early to lighten their workload.  The turnover of nurses or doctors is likely to be higher for those who are burned out as Wong found that “more than half of the burned-out residents said they were not happy with their career choice” (Wong, par. 2).


Thankfully, there are several methods for coping with burnout.  Newton (1995) discusses both individual approaches, as well as organizational methods for handling burnout in his book, Managing stress: Emotion and power at work.  An employee assistance program is a method that involves counseling for the staff but Newton explains that this is not as common as SMT, or Stress Management Training.  


Essentially, the training offers way for employees to work through or manage their stress levels.  Problem-based coping is a method where individuals can focus on the causes of their stress to cope with the problems of burnout.  But, Newton explains that an environment of social support is often the most successful means of coping with burnout.


Christina Maslach is also known well for her studies on burnout. She is the author of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is said to measure levels of burnout.  She has written several books on the subject from dealing with burnout, to analyzing occurrences.  If you can’t get your hands on her research, a comprehensive test can be found on mindtools.com, in order to determine ones’ level of burnout.  Their test can be downloaded and used with Microsoft Excel.


All of my findings showed evidence that avoiding burnout when possible is beneficial to all parties. Patients will be better cared for and the medical personnel will feel less stressed. Hospitals and medical practices would benefit greatly from burnout avoidance because morale will be heightened, resulting in better performance from nurses and a higher production rate. Despite the cliché, it may not be better to burnout than to fade away.





Newton, T.  Managing Stress: Emotion and Power at Work.  Thousand Oaks, CA, 1995.


Tracy, Sarah J.  “Becoming a Character for Commerce.”  Management Communication Quarterly  Vol. 14, No. 1 2000: 90-128. 


UC Berkeley, Psychology Department.  Christina Maslach, Professor.  August.  2005. <http://psychology.berkeley.edu/faculty/profiles/cmaslach&gt;.


Wong, Kate.  “Medical Resident Burnout May Compromise Patient Care.”  Scientific American Mind March 5.  2002.  <http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=medical-resident-burnout&gt;.


About The Author:

Daniel Jania is a Staff Writer with the Clear Medical Solutions Communication Team. His work is regularly shared on the Clear Medical Agency newsletter, ClearManagementMatters.com and the ClearNursingMatters.com blog.


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