Preventing Nurse Burnout With Exercise

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Two nurses meditating in a hallway.Occupational burnout is a growing concern in the global workforce. Nearly 30% of health care workers are considering leaving their jobs, according to a joint survey of frontline health care workers by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post. The survey also found nearly 60% of respondents reported negative effects on their mental health due to burnout and the coronavirus pandemic.

With the American Nursing Association predicting there will be more nursing jobs available in 2022 than in any other profession in the United States, investing in the mental and physical health of nurses is critical to maintaining an effective and viable workforce.

Researchers have begun to explore interventions that will help employees avoid the physical, emotional, and behavioral toll that burnout inflicts on the performance of workers. For many, outdoor activity and exercise are key components to increasing positive well-being and reducing perceived stress and emotional exhaustion in the workplace. With positive changes in the workplace, and an investment in programs and activities that promote self-care and good mental health, organizations can work toward preventing nurse burnout.

By pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) that encourages future nursing leaders to prioritize a sustainable work-life balance, graduates can implement programs that have a positive impact.

What is Occupational Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical distress that occurs when employees become overwhelmed, emotionally drained, or dispassionate about the tasks they are assigned on a day-to-day basis. As that stress continues to build, many employees leave work questioning their interest in the work they do, sapped of energy, and wondering if they will be able to continue in their jobs.

Burnout doesn’t only affect work life, however. The negative effects of burnout can carry over to impact social and home life, and the physical effects of this stress can make people more susceptible to falling ill.

Burnout, particularly in the nursing profession, is a serious issue that can adversely impact the health of nurses as well as their patients. Burnout has the potential to cause negative conditions such as overtiredness — which can lead to mistakes in care — as well as compassion and empathy fatigue. This makes it more difficult for nurses to provide the support patients need and is an immediate concern that must be addressed in healthcare settings.

Symptoms of Burnout

Occupational burnout — from its first signs to its more serious symptoms — can vary from person to person. The early stages of burnout are often subtle but become more pronounced over time. Because of this, it’s important to pay attention to the symptoms of burnout, which can manifest physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms can present themselves in many forms, such as:

  • Feeling overly tired and drained after a day’s work
  • Having a compromised immune system
  • Experiencing tension headaches or muscle pain
  • Having trouble sleeping

Physical symptoms of burnout can have long-term negative effects on individual health. With physical symptoms making it more difficult to concentrate while at work, preventing nurse burnout affects not only the health of nurses themselves but plays a key role in reducing patient care errors.

Emotional Symptoms

Nursing is a profession that requires empathy, understanding, and compassion on a daily basis. These emotions can be draining for individuals regardless of burnout but can be the difference between an accurate diagnosis and positive care outcomes in patients. When nurses are feeling burned out, there are emotional symptoms that can arise in the form of:

  • Self-doubt
  • Feeling defeated or alone in the world
  • Lack of motivation or sense of accomplishment
  • Negative and cynical thoughts

By implementing mental health programs and providing a supportive workplace that prioritizes the need to prevent nurse burnout, many organizations can realize positive long-term effects. From higher employee retention to the potential to improve patient care, investing in nurses and their self-care can make a world of difference.

Behavioral Symptoms

Occupational burnout often results from a gradual accumulation of stresses, making it difficult to recognize and combat for some nurses. In many cases, symptoms of burnout can present themselves in a change of behavior including:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities and passions
  • Self-isolation
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • Using substances to cope with stress
  • Avoiding coming to work

It is important to understand, however, that stress and burnout are not the same. Research has shown that a certain amount of stress is healthy and can be used as a motivator to meet goals. However, prolonged stress can result in burnout when an individual puts forth a disproportionate amount of effort without taking the necessary steps and precautions to deal with it.

The Benefits of Exercise

While occupational burnout can be encountered in many different industries, a number of studies suggest the benefits of exercise can make a significant difference in combating burnout, especially if that activity takes place outdoors.

The physical benefits of exercise have been widely documented, helping individuals maintain their mental health, reducing fatigue, and improving overall cognitive function. Taking the time to make self-care a daily activity can be vital to reducing burnout. From increasing physical activity to promoting healthy nutrition for nurses, taking a bit of extra time each day for the things that make us happy can make all the difference.

Studies have confirmed the positive correlation between exercise and a reduction of psychological stress. Outdoor exercise was strongly associated with increased energy and revitalization, as well as decreased confusion, anger, depression, and tension, when compared to exercising indoors.

Occupational burnout is a costly and very real part of the modern workforce, costing employers millions of dollars each year. For employees, burnout can take many forms and affect their physical, mental, and behavioral health. New research has found that by exercising outdoors, employees can feel more revitalized, less tense, and more ready to tackle tasks the next day.

Make a Positive Impact with a Career in Nursing

With burnout being such a profound issue in society and health care in particular, it is of vital importance that nurse leaders learn to recognize the signs of burnout, and how to help their staff cope with and eliminate stressors that contribute to occupational burnout.

By integrating programs that focus on preventing nurse burnout — from tips on self-care, to exercise, to group activities that encourage a supportive workplace atmosphere — nurses and their organizations can show each other that they are not alone. With the right resources and understanding, nurses can fight workplace burnout, encouraging each other to prioritize their own mental health and improving the lives of nurses and their patients.

For nurses who are eager to advance their careers, it can be difficult to study while maintaining a work-life balance. By choosing an online program, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing from Ohio University, nurses can pursue a robust and comprehensive program without compromising their schedules, taking advantage of the flexibility of online study to make schooling work for them.

By focusing on improving the future of health care, students enrolled at Ohio University can be well on their way to empowering patients with information and practical advice. They can also learn how to be less stressed in health care environments and thrive in whatever workplaces they choose.

Discover what you can do with an advanced degree in nursing.

Recommended Reading

BSN vs. MSN: Advance Your Nursing Career

Evidence-Based Nursing: Focus Areas and Tips

Nurse Leader Role: Career Options at Home and Abroad


American Hospital Association, Fact Sheet: Strengthening the Health Care Workforce

American Journal of Accountable Care, “Making an Evidence-Based Case for Urgent Action to Address Clinician Burnout”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Physical Activity Reduces Stress

KFF, KFF/The Washington Post Frontline Health Care Workers Survey

Mind Tools, Avoiding Burnout

Notable, Majority of Healthcare Workers Worry About Burnout from Increasing Burden of Administrative Work

Nursing Times, Burnout in Nursing: What Have We Learnt and What is Still Unknown?

PubMed Central, “The Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Occupational Stress of Female Nurses: A Controlled Clinical Trial”

PubMed Central, “Prevention Actions of Burnout Syndrome in Nurses: An Integrating Literature Review”

Workforce, “6 Things Leadership can do to Prevent Nurse Burnout”

Working Nurse, “Overload: The Simple Improv Exercise That Shines a Light on Nursing Stress”