Stress and fatigue impact nurses no matter where they work within the healthcare industry. Long shifts, stressful situations, and a need to perform without error all contribute to the potential for nurses to become tired and more prone to making mistakes.

The situation is exacerbated during emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic. In many hospitals, nurses have faced more long shifts and stressful situations than usual. A study published in The Lancet surveyed 2,014 nurses working at the original epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. The nurses reported facing “enormous mental health challenges,” including fatigue, anxiety, and fear.

However, nurses have ways to stop nursing burnout. The first step is understanding what leads to fatigue in nursing and how it manifests.

Causes of Nursing Stress and Fatigue

An examination of nursing fatigue done by the federal Agency For Healthcare Research and Quality found that two main issues cause fatigue.

The first is simply a lack of adequate sleep. The agency reports that five hours of sleep every 24 hours is the absolute minimum for most people. However, most adults need between 7 ½ and 8 hours of sleep. Nurses may fall short of even the minimum in some circumstances.

The other cause is “increased work intensity or long work hours,” a phrase that could double as part of a nursing job description. Constant stress and anxiety about doing their job error-free can worsen fatigue.

The agency notes that people experience a decline in cognitive function when they are chronically or acutely sleep-deprived. This can manifest in changes in mood, motivation, response time, and initiative.

The Dangers of Nurse Fatigue

Fatigue can cause significant problems for someone working in any profession. In nursing, it can lead to disaster. In a position paper on the issue of nurse fatigue, the American Nursing Association offered a long list of consequences that studies show are the result of nursing fatigue. They include:

  • An increased risk of errors
  • A decline in short-term and working memory
  • A reduced ability to learn
  • A negative impact on divergent thinking, innovation, and insight
  • Increased risk-taking behavior
  • Impaired mood and communication skills

The ANA added that “fatigued and sleep-deprived nurses are more likely to report clinical decision regret, which occurs when their behaviors do not align with professional nursing practice standards or expectations.”

Methods to Battle Nurse Fatigue

Battling nurse stress and fatigue requires an effort by both employers and nurses, according to the ANA.

For example, the organization said that nurses have the responsibility to carefully consider taking on extra shifts beyond their regular schedule. And employers should promote a workplace that prioritizes patient safety by creating schedules that give nurses adequate time away from the job.

Nurses can also help themselves by leaving work at the door. Taking time to exercise, practice a healthy diet, and get involved with activities away from nursing can help them lower stress and achieve a better work/life balance.

As with all professions, those nurses who work in specialties they enjoy will likely experience less stress. Other strategies that may help reduce nurse stress and fatigue include:

  • Developing good sleep hygiene, which involves going to sleep and getting up around the same time, creating the most comfortable atmosphere possible to sleep, and avoiding electronic devices
  • Using vacation days
  • Practicing meditation, yoga or some type of relaxation technique at the end of each day’
  • Exploring new hobbies that have nothing to do with nursing

By their very nature, nurses are tough and resilient. But they also need support and cooperation in the workplace. By working together, nurses and their managers can create a culture that emphasizes patient safety and makes getting the proper rest a priority for all nurses.