The Relationship Between Nurse Burnout and Patient Safety

January 17, 2023

Burnout among healthcare practitioners is a prevalent and pressing issue. It is an organizational problem that requires systemic and individual change. Nurse burnout has been rising in the last few years, and the pandemic accelerated the rate of nurse burnout even more. 

The report of a cross-sectional survey data from over 50,000 registered nurses (representing more than 3.9 million nurses nationally) in the United States revealed that among nurses leaving their current employment, more than 31% left because of burnout. Working for over twenty hours weekly and the hospital setting was associated with burnout. 

Unfortunately, we now live in peculiar times. The global pandemic is not going anywhere soon, which means more hospitalizations, more shifts, and more nursing hours. Additionally, patients now have a growing demand for better healthcare and services. 

As a healthcare administrator or nurse manager, your priority should be to promote the wellbeing of your staff and patients alike. How do you go about it? One way is by reducing nurse burnout. What do you need to know about how patient safety is connected to nurse burnout? Read on and find out.

What is Nurse Burnout? 

Burnout is specific work-related stress involving physical or emotional fatigue. It is usually accompanied by a loss of personal identity, a reduced sense of accomplishment, and a loss of enthusiasm for work. 

For nurses, burnout is usually the result of excessive workload, conflicting patient care priorities, poor job control and decision-making power, and insufficient social support.

A study defines nurse burnout as: "A widespread phenomenon characterized by a reduction in nurses' energy that manifests in emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, and feelings of frustration and may lead to reductions in work efficacy."

The consequence of nurse burnout is detrimental for nurses, the patients, and the healthcare facility they work. It disrupts the work-life balance and jeopardizes the quality of care.

What Causes Nurse Burnout?

There are many reasons why nurses can become burnt out. Burnout often occurs due to long work hours, sleep deprivation, an emotionally stressful work environment, and a lack of support from coworkers. 

Long Hours

As the Baby Boomer generation ages and chronic disease prevalence increases, the need for nurses has risen. The Bureau of Labor Statistics had forecast that employment of registered nurses would increase by 12% between 2018 and 2019. 

Many hospitals are unable to meet the increasing demand for nurses. As a result, many nurses work longer hours, increasing their risk of burnout.

Poor Scheduling

The shortage of nurses in several hospitals and health centers means less flexible scheduling. Schedules are set several weeks in advance, and because of the time it took to prepare the roster, nurse managers or healthcare admins are not usually willing to switch schedules. 

Long-term scheduling also prevents nurses from taking a day off to attend a family event or dealing with personal issues. As a result, nurses suffer from low morale and feel exhausted, decreasing their enthusiasm for work.

Sleep Deprivation

In any field, working professionals in need of sleep are at risk of burnout. As nurses work long hours and consecutive shifts, sleep deprivation is common. 

Approximately 25% of nurses reported difficulty sleeping between work shifts in 2018.

High-Stress Environment

Working in healthcare is generally stressful. And as nurses are directly involved in patient care, they experience more stress than many other professionals. Nurses who work in the emergency rooms, for instance, encounter the highest job stress levels. 

Lack of Support

Workplaces with little teamwork and collaboration are also more likely to experience burnout. Collaboration is crucial in professions such as nursing. 

The workplace can become unpleasant when conflict, poor communication, lack of cooperation, and peer bullying occur. As a result, nurses may burn out or make errors. 

Emotional Strain from Patient Care

In many cases, the desire to care for patients is the primary reason for entering nursing. A high mortality rate and low recovery rates pose emotional hardships for nurses who work in critical care and end-of-life care. 

Burnout and compassion fatigue can result from emotional letdowns. Furthermore, nurses who care for more than four patients per shift are at an increased risk of burnout.

How Does Nurse Burnout Hurt the Nurse? 

Nurses who are burned out are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion, job dissatisfaction, and a lack of enthusiasm for the profession than other nurses. 

When nurses become emotionally exhausted, they may struggle to function at work. These struggles can lead to medical errors, increased absenteeism, and depression.

How Does Nurse Burnout Affect Patient Safety? 

Patients keep every healthcare facility in business, so the point of doing your job is to keep them happy. 

However, when the nurses who are an essential cog of your healthcare institution are burned out, you need to consider your patients' safety. Stressful nurses are prone to medical errors, lack empathy for patients, and simply not showing up for work. The result is a poor quality of care for your patient's which jeopardizes their safety. 

Additionally, nurse burnout will increase the turnover rate, putting pressure on the available nurses to pick up the slack. As these nurses are under a lot of stress, they can only do so much. What's more, your finances as an institution are hurt because poor patient satisfaction equals low patient retention and low profits.

How to Reduce Nurse Burnout

As a healthcare administrator or nurse manager, there are several steps you can take to reduce nurse burnout and improve patient safety. These steps include:

  • Encourage purpose in the work of nurses: Nurses need to feel a sense of purpose, so they have the energy and drive to provide quality care.
  • Improve scheduling: Scheduling should be flexible so that nurses can also find ways to take time off for personal or family matters.
  • Improve staff wellness programs: Wellness programs can help nurses find stress relief, which will reduce the risk of burnout. Nurses should also be encouraged to take time off for themselves when needed.
  • Provide better support: The healthcare team needs to collaborate and give emotional support to each other so that the hospital works as a unit.


The success of your healthcare facility ultimately depends on the health of the nurses. When too many nurses are burned out, patient safety is threatened. This is reason enough to recognize the signs of nurse burnout and implement actions to prevent it from occurring in your hospital or clinic. 

You need to take a proactive approach by providing resources for your nurses and improving the working conditions in your facility. By doing so, you can help your nursing staff overcome burnout and maintain high-quality patient care.

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