nurse leader speaking with team members

How Nurse Leaders Combat Burnout

Nurse leaders play an important role in recognizing, intervening, and preventing burnout. As research and understanding of the issue improve, nurse leaders are finding more effective ways to stop negative habits from escalating and to prevent burnout from taking hold in the first place. Protecting clinical staff from burnout is dependent on nurse leaders confronting the reality of burnout and working to counter it at every possible point of influence.

Recognize the Warning Signs of Nurse Burnout

A major strength of effective nurse leadership is strong relationships and interpersonal communication. However, leaders will need additional resources and awareness to identify burnout among their charges. The contributing factors that lead to burnout can be very personal as well as subtle, such as:

  • Increasing sick days and callouts;
  • Missing deadlines or neglecting certain tasks;
  • Withdrawing from relationships and opportunities to socialize;
  • Getting frustrated with little inconveniences, or preoccupied with minor details

Nurses new to a hospital or fresh out of school can be just as susceptible to burnout as veteran staff. It is common for staff suffering from chronic stress to carry on working and keeping up appearances, making it harder for others to recognize when someone is simply tired or having an off day, and when they are struggling with burnout.

Effective nurse leaders should have formal policies as well as informal cultural mechanisms in place to help identify burnout, such as regular nursing team huddles as well as more casual points of contact to ask teammates how they are doing and encourage staff to take breaks or talk through specific challenges. Not only can this help nurses work through their issues, but it can also give nurse leaders more insight into the daily stresses their staff face and more points of contact for assessing the health and attitudes of their staff. Initiatives by nurse leaders to facilitate this kind of engagement and feedback help express leadership’s trust in, and compassion for, the nursing staff. Showing this trust and support can foster a dynamic relationship wherein everyone is a resource and takes responsibility for one another.

Understanding Workplace Stressors

To effectively combat burnout, nurse leaders must understand the risks and potential causes. Much of the time, burnout begins as chronic stress. While health care can be inherently stressful at times, nurse leaders must understand how that stress can go from ordinary and manageable to something more serious. By knowing what drives stress among staff, nurse leaders can aid recovery and even prevent escalation.

For example, patient care takes a lot of social skills and compassion, as well as clinical knowledge. Unfortunately, becoming too empathetic with patients who are under stress or in a great deal of pain can end up causing nurses to experience compassion fatigue. This is a common underlying cause of the emotional exhaustion that can lead to burnout among nurses.

Additionally, the learning curve with respect to new technology has become a common source of stress and frustration among caregivers. Having to adjust workflows and change priorities to comply with new standards or policies can be disruptive and frustrating. This kind of change has been cited as a primary cause of burnout for many nurses, and even physicians.

The Role of the Nurse Leader in Addressing Workplace Stress

Training and ongoing education are routine duties of nurse leadership. Within these learning opportunities, nurse leaders can focus on providing their nursing staff with stress-management instruction, the development of coping skills, and collaborative discussions about how to remain compassionate yet safely detached. Nurse leaders can also be sensitive to concerns about technological disruption by providing training resources as well as administrative support to ensure all members of staff feel comfortable utilizing new tools and workflows and practicing self-care.

A healthy organizational culture can also be a preventative measure for burnout. Creating a culture of openness and collaboration can help nurse leaders stay attuned to when their staff is struggling to adapt or feeling stressed by the pace of change. Embracing humor, celebrating individual and shared victories, showing appreciation, and encouraging everyone to take breaks and feel comfortable pushing back on extra tasks are all shown to help keep stress levels lower. Creating such a culture depends in part on nurse leaders being visible and using their influence to demonstrate the behaviors they wish to see among their team.

Those in a leadership role can also take a more proactive approach to change management, showcasing the changes as new learning opportunities and skill development. Fostering an attitude of tolerance toward change and a willingness to learn and adapt are key leadership responsibilities in helping eliminate the risk of burnout as well as maximizing the performance of a team.

The Importance of Nurse Mentoring

Helping struggling nurses focus on practicing a balanced, sustainable approach to compassionate care by mentoring and modeling effective emotional management is key for helping nurse leaders empower their staff. Mentoring can take many forms for nurse leaders, but typically entail practicing a few critical skills – listening, providing feedback, effective time management, and maintaining a presence among the nursing staff. Nurse leaders are also naturally in a position to have a positive influence simply by exhibiting positive stress-management and self-care behaviors, such as setting reasonable expectations for themselves and their teams, along with maintaining composure and showing a willingness to talk through stressors or other personal and emotional challenges.

However, sometimes peers are better placed to recognize the signs of burnout earlier on than nurse leadership, so it is important for nurse leaders to not only cultivate relationships with staff, but also foster a culture of teamwork and support among staff. Nurses on the team need to feel comfortable and supported in reaching out, intervening, or communicating with leadership about their concerns. This is all dependent on the organizational culture developed and exhibited by nurse leaders.

Burnout not only poses a threat to the health of the nurses themselves but can also impact staffing levels, negatively affect the hospital’s bottom line, and potentially pose a direct risk to patients. When nurse burnout occurs, affected staff members need leadership and a supportive team culture that they can turn to in order to re-engage with their job and regain their pride at work. Becoming an effective nurse leader entails taking on a higher level of accountability in order to make a positive impact and be influential in the clinical space. To be successful, nursing leadership should blend clinical knowledge with social skills and find a balance that serves everyone in the hospital.

Learn More

Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Norwich University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program helps students hone their knowledge and skills to assume leadership positions in healthcare systems, nursing education or nurse informatics. The program aims to develop students who could take a role in shaping health policy, in educating other nurses and health care professionals, and in providing advanced care to their patients. Norwich’s online nursing program coursework has been developed based on guidelines by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.


Nursing Leadership – Staff Mentoring, American Association of Nurse Assessment Coordination

How Nurse Leaders Can Reduce Burnout: Focus on Mental Energy!, Nurse Leader

New nurses burnout and workplace wellbeing: The influence of authentic leadership and psychological capital, Science Direct

Work Stress and Burnout Among Nurses: Role of the Work Environment and Working Conditions, National Center for Biotechnology Information