Why Nurses Experience Higher Than Average Rates Of Workplace Stress, And How To Manage It

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Posted: May 1, 2019

Recent studies have revealed that nurses experience one of the highest rates of work-related stress among all professions, with over 60% of nurses stating that stress was a significant issue in their work lives. Workplace stress is prevalent in most high-stress, fast paced environments and can lead to significant illnessnurses are no exception to this risk. The consequences of constant stress in the workplace are amplified in nurses, as well, because the impairments caused by chronic stress can cause an increase in fatigue and cognitive acuity, which then translates to nurse error and poor patient outcomes. Nurses in particular should develop strong strategies to manage workplace stress, such as meditation, mindfulness, a healthy and active lifestyle, and avoiding excess consumption of alcohol and tobacco products.

Why Nurses Experience Greater Workplace Stress

Nurses are critical in treating with both acute and chronically ill patients in healthcare settings. Often subject to tremendously high standards, long hours, and difficult physical challenges, the majority of nurses experience workplace stress constantly; this constant stress exposure combined with the emotional toll of providing for very ill and dying patients is a recipe for burnout if unchecked. Constant stress raises cortisol levels, which impacts the body physiologically and emotionally. Nurses may turn to negative habits like alcohol and tobacco use to cope with the stress; these behaviors negatively impact the body as well and have adverse effects on cognitive function, skin health, and longevity overall. While the healthcare industry as a whole is becoming more aware of the impact of stress on nurses’ job performance, little is done at enterprise level to deal with the burden of workplace stress as a preventative benefit to employees. Until such time that the healthcare industry creates standardized and mandatory stress management programs for its’ employees, nurses should take matters into their own hands to reduce workplace stress and decrease the likelihood of burnout on the job.

How Nurses Can Take Matters Into Their Own Hands: Practical Tips for Stress Management

One of the most promising techniques to deal with stress is mindful meditation. Nurses are often required to make critical decisions that impact patient outcomes, and the burden of that responsibility can take an emotional toll on mental health. Decreased emotional well-being often leads to unhealthy coping behaviors, like turning to alcohol or tobacco use. Nurses may form these negative habits to cope with stress, which in turn negatively impact the body and have adverse effects on cognitive function. Another obvious sign of alcohol dependence is poor skin health, as alcohol dehydrates the skin. To prevent negative behaviors and induce a sense of positive well-being, nurses can adopt a meditation practice that allows for quiet reflection and processing of emotion. There are countless free meditation apps on the market now, making this practice an inexpensive and simple solution for stress management.

In addition to building a meditation practice, nurses can cope with workplace stress by staying healthy and active. We have been hearing for years that exercise is vitally important to reducing stress and improving longevity and quality of life, and it is no surprise that being active and engaging in physical fitness activities would be of tremendous benefit to healthcare workers. But besides simply reducing overall stress, exercise is particularly crucial for nurses, who often face immense physical requirements when transporting patients and performing other job duties. Nurses need mental and physical strength to perform at the highest possible level, and participating in healthy activities that build muscle, endurance, and strength can improve physical capacity, decrease risk of injury while performing physically demanding job duties, and improve mental health.

It is no secret that nurses bear the burden of tremendous responsibility in the modern healthcare system. This responsibility for patient health often means a trade off in nurses’ emotional health, resulting in significantly elevated workplace stress and the risks that accompany that stress. Nurses should practice healthy habits to manage stress and avoid relying on dangerous coping habits like alcohol and tobacco use. Instead, nurses can manage stress practically by adopting positive practices like mindfulness, meditation, and healthy physical activity.

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Living with Grief and the guided journal, From Grief To Peace. She is the creator of the Mindfulness & Grief System that is featured in the Handbook of Grief Therapies (2023) and is the founder of Awaken, a mindfulness-based online grief support group. Heather also hosts the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, and offers mindfulness-based grief support online through her organization, the Mindfulness & Grief Institute. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She currently lives in Falling Waters, WV.

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