ICU Nurses and Burnout: How to Protect Yourself


Working in the Intensive Care Unit or ICU isn’t for the faint of heart. Usually, the patients there are the sickest ones in the hospital. This means that the patients there require nurses who are physically, mentally, and emotionally fit.

Such demand puts ICU nurses at an increased risk of experiencing Burnout Syndrome.

What is Burnout Syndrome?

This condition happens when a person’s perceived expectations and self-worth don’t match those of his employers. It’s marked by these symptoms:

Lack of personal accomplishment: In the ICU setting, nurses experience trauma and death. Seeing their patients failing to survive despite the care provided can make ICU nurses question their capabilities as nurses.

Depersonalization: Once nurses become too exhausted, they start to depersonalize. They become numb as a way to cope.

Emotional exhaustion: This is probably the biggest predictor of burnout.

Apart from that, nurses in the intensive care unit are also exposed to open wounds, trauma, pain, death, and tragedy. There’s also the pressure of delivering proper and safe care all the time.

Tips for Burnout Prevention Among ICU Nurses


Being healthy starts with self-care.

Eat healthier foods and drink more water. Get enough sleep and go out more often.

Start exercising, too. You can do any physical activity you want. You can do yoga, HIIT exercises or even rock climbing. Regular exercise can help decrease tension, stabilize mood, improve self-esteem, and promote better sleep.

Find a hobby

Try to find activities that aren’t related to your work. Baking and painting are good examples. You can also join groups that are related to your hobby.

Take days off

Take a vacation if you really need to. Do it for your mental health.

Now, if you can’t leave town, consider staycations at home. You can plan a spa day at home or host a cooking night with family and friends. If you’re up for it, you can even enjoy the great outdoors in your own backyard. Set up a tent and make s’mores with your kids.

Recognize triggers

It’s critical to acknowledge when you’re feeling down and burned out. Knowing your triggers can help you take action faster.

If you had an emotional week at work, try to ask for easier and lighter patient assignments. This will enable you to recover.

In case the job becomes too much for you, talk to your supervisor, and ask to work on other units a few days a week. You can even volunteer to work on admin duties part-time.

Overall, if you feel that working in the Intensive Care Unit isn’t really for you, look for other nursing specialties that are less demanding. Travel nursing is an excellent option.

Build a stronger relationship with co-workers

When you trust your co-workers, you will be able to enjoy going to work. When you’re enjoying work, you are less likely to suffer from burnout.

Attend parties you’re invited to. Set up monthly dinners with staff members. Go to baby showers and celebrate the success of each other.

More importantly, communicate with each other. Effective communication is one of the best ways to establish strong coworker relationships.

Have a support group

It’s important for nurses to find people who they can turn to when things get super intense at work. Being able to vent your feelings when you’re overwhelmed or frustrated is valuable in keeping you stable and emotionally grounded at work.

You can find a supportive colleague or join support groups in your area. If there’s none, you can start one with your co-workers.

Talk to your family and friends whenever you need someone who’ll listen to your problems. Also, let your partner know what you’re going through at work.

If that doesn’t work out, talk to a professional. A little extra help in managing your emotions as a nurse won’t hurt.

The Effects of Burnout Syndrome

ICU nurses aren’t the only ones affects by this. Even patient care and the healthcare system suffer when nurses have burnout.


Studies revealed that symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are common among ICU nurses and physicians with burnout syndrome (1). This can negatively affect the ability of the nurses to safely care for their patients.

In one study (2) involving 1,500 staff from different ICUs in France, depression and its symptoms were huge factors for committing medical errors. Additionally, they can also negatively affect one’s productivity.

Healthcare System

A study (3) in the US revealed that nurse burnout was closely associated with patient satisfaction. The study involved 600 patients and 800 nurses from 20 different institutions.

It showed that patients who were cared for on areas with good administrative support, adequate staff, and good relationships between members were twice as likely to report high levels of satisfaction. Nurses working in such areas are likely to report lower levels of burnout, too.

Burnout can increase sickness rates in institutions. It can also cause skill drain in hospitals if nurses feel that they have no option but to leave work to keep their physical and mental health.

Patient Safety

Burnout can decrease performance and cause stress among nurses. These things can negatively affect patient care and make nurses more prone to committing errors.

The Risk Factors

Taking care of critically ill patients is already a huge contributing factor to burnout. Although there are no studies showing any link between burnout and the patients’ severity of illness, there are a few studies that demonstrate higher rates of burnout among nurses caring for dying patients and those who are involved in withholding and removing life-sustaining therapies.

Younger age (4) has been closely linked to burnout among nurses working in the ICU. Some reasons for this include self-confidence and inexperience.

The presence of conflict between nurses and peers, physicians, patients, and their families can lead to burnout, too. The same thing can happen when nurses experience interpersonal conflict when caring for critically ill patients.


1. Mealer, M. (2016). Burnout syndrome in the intensive care unit. Future directions for research.
2. Garrouste-Orgeas, M., Perrin, M., Soufir, L., Vesin, A., Blot, F., Maxime, V., … & Azoulay, E. (2015). The Iatroref study: medical errors are associated with symptoms of depression in ICU staff but not burnout or safety culture. Intensive care medicine, 41(2), 273-284.
3. Vahey, D. C., Aiken, L. H., Sloane, D. M., Clarke, S. P., & Vargas, D. (2004). Nurse burnout and patient satisfaction. Medical care, 42(2 Suppl), II57.
4. Merlani, P., Verdon, M., Businger, A., Domenighetti, G., Pargger, H., & Ricou, B. (2011). Burnout in ICU caregivers: a multicenter study of factors associated to centers. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine, 184(10), 1140-1146.