Decompression Session: How to Avoid Nursing School Burnout & Rediscover Your Calling

Overcome Nursing School Burnout

If you’re an aspiring or existing nurse, you know that caring isn’t just a career, it’s your calling.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t wear you down. Nurse burnout is a very real thing, and so is nursing school burnout.

Between challenging courses, clinicals, licensure exam prep, and competition between classmates, it makes sense that nursing students would end up feeling run down every now and then.

Fortunately, you’re not going through it alone, and there are ways to boost your energy, build your stamina, and reignite the fire that made you sign up for nursing school in the first place. Keep reading to learn more about what burnout is, how it affects nurses and nursing school students, and what you can do to avoid or recover from it.

What Is Burnout?

On the occupational front, burnout is identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a syndrome that occurs when someone experiences chronic workplace stress that has not been managed. Common signs of burnout include:

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism, negativity, or mental distance toward one’s occupation
  • Reduced professional efficacy (or difficulty performing tasks related to one’s job)

Additionally, medical experts say burnout can have physical effects as well. That’s because high levels of stress can cause the body to go into overdrive when producing stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. This can be helpful in the moment to get the body through high-intensity situations but harmful over the long run.

Common physical signs of burnout include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep issues (i.e., insomnia and nightmares)
  • Changes in eating habits (undereating or overeating)
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches

Burnout can also cause mental health issues such as feelings of anxiety or depression.

How Common Is Burnout in Nursing and Nursing School?

Nursing burnout has long been an issue challenging the healthcare industry, which was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2022 study by the American Nurses Association (ANA) found that 43% of nurses surveyed saying they were experiencing burnout with understaffing stated as the top contributing factor.

Studies from all over the world have found that nursing students experience burnout as well.

One study referenced a Swedish survey that found a burnout rate of 29.7% among first‐year nursing students and 36.9% among second year students. The same study also referenced analytical research in Iran that showed up to 49.2% of medical science students reporting higher academic burnout levels than the average general student population. Additionally, a study in Hong Kong found that 35.8% of nursing students pursuing their bachelor’s degrees experienced mild to severe depression, 37.3% experienced anxiety, and 41.1% experienced stress.

Academic burnout in nursing students has been found to negatively affect the quality of nursing care and academic performance while leading to higher withdrawals from courses.

That’s why it’s important for nursing students to recognize signs of burnout early, take corrective measures to get to a healthier state, and even take steps to prevent burnout before it occurs.

5 Ways to Overcome Nursing School Burnout

1. Reexamine Your ‘Why’

If you’re worried about getting burned out or you’re already there, follow these steps to get your physical health, mental health, and motivation back on track.

Our advice is to take actions the following actions when you’re starting to feel discouraged or disillusioned:

Meditate on your “why” for signing up for nursing school, whether that’s a loved one who experienced a serious health challenge, someone you look up to within the field of healthcare, or just a strong desire to help people and make a difference

Write down your why and keep it visible. Jot down your reason for becoming a nurse on Post-it notes and stick them on your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, your notebooks, anywhere you will see them on a daily basis. This will help you keep your eyes on the prize and remember that it’s all worth it at the end of the day.

Grab a cup of coffee with a mentor or a nurse friend to talk through your struggles and get their advice. Odds are they were standing in your shoes once or even many times and can provide guidance on how to overcome burnout. Your mentor or friend can share their own reasons for becoming a nurse and staying in the field, which could serve as additional inspiration.

2. Take Personal Time

One of the best things you can do to avoid burnout (and to recover from it) is to maintain a healthy school-work-life balance, which means working some downtime into your schedule. It may feel impossible to do when you’re juggling classes, clinical rounds, and possibly a job and family responsibilities, but it’s critical for your mental health and your ability to successfully complete your nursing program.

Give yourself a break from the grueling demands of nursing school by taking the following actions:

Spend time with a family and friends outside of your normal study environment (i.e.,
off-campus or outside your home).

Pick up a hobby, and try to choose a hobby with a physical component such as drawing, painting, gardening, playing an instrument, yoga, etc. One study found that engagement in physical leisure activities for 20 minutes or more at least once a week reduces the risk of persistent fatigue.

Schedule breaks into your study time, and dedicate that time to something that will relax you physically and/or mentally, such as stretching, taking a walk, or socializing.

Unplug during your downtime. Try shutting off your phone during your breaks or leisure time, or at least silence your notifications. This will help you focus on relaxing without distractions and reminders about things you have to do.

3. Get Some Exercise

When you exercise, you lower the level of your body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and you start producing more endorphins, which lift your mood and act as Mother Nature’s painkillers. So not only is exercise good for your cardiovascular system and other systems in your body, but it also relieves stress and improves mental well-being.

In addition to aerobic exercise, you can also use breathing and mental exercises (such as meditation) to keep your body strong and your mind at ease.

4. Nourish Your Body

It’s simple advice, but it’s essential for keeping your body fueled up so you’ll have the stamina to power through those all-nighter study sessions and long shifts in your clinicals.

One study of healthcare staff in Australia showed that healthier eating indicators are associated with less burnout. Make sure to eat a well-rounded diet from all the recommended food groups in healthy portions, avoid foods that will make you crash (i.e., foods high in carbs and sugar), and do your best not to skip meals.

You should also be careful not to consume too much alcohol, as it’s easy for stressed-out students to form unhealthy drinking habits that negatively impact them both physically and mentally.

For more healthy eating tips, check out our Decompression Session post “5 Beneficial Foods by Body Part.

5. Join a Study Group

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all the cramming you’re doing, joining a study group may help take some of the pressure off. Studying with others can help break up the monotony, give you fresh perspectives on the material you’re learning, and help you work in some socialization time.

Research from Stanford University shows that when people work together in a group, they are more likely to feel motivated to complete the task at hand, they are less likely to feel tired from the task, and their performance on the task improves.

Check out our Study Buddy with tips on how to run an effective in-person study group, as well as an effective virtual study group. Or if you don’t want to join a formal study group, just try hitting the books and medical terminology flashcards with a friend. You may find yourself feeling more energized and motivated and less burned out.

For more helpful health tips to get you through nursing school, read more of WCU’s
Decompression Session posts

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.