How to Avoid Burnout: Self Care Just as Important as Patient Care

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by Don Sadler

Every job involves a certain amount of stress. But it’s probably safe to say that OR nurses and surgical techs experience more stress in their jobs than people in most other professions…

Their hours are often long and grueling, and the stakes associated with performing their jobs are literally life and death.In this type of environment, it’s not a matter if, but when, they will experience stress. The question is: What can they do to manage this stress and keep it from eventually leading to job burnout?

“OR nursing can be very demanding, both physically and mentally,” says Caroline Doughty, RN, circulator, scheduler and charge nurse in the OR at Atlanta Medical Center. “I have gone home very tired and mentally drained after a shift. When you work in this manner for several months on end, it can make you rethink your career choice.”

“In the OR nursing world, it’s hard to avoid stress and burnout,” adds Linda Park, RN, BSN, who works at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. “There’s always going to be a shortage of nursing staff, so you just have to deal with that aspect of the job. As nurses, we tend to put others’ needs before our own and forget that we need rest, too.”

Dealing with Compassion Fatigue

Phyllis Quinlan, PhD, RN-BC, is a consultant and personal coach who has worked with a number of different types of professional caregivers, including OR nurses and surgical techs. She says that stress management is at the top of the list of concerns for the OR nurses and surgical techs she has worked with.

“I’m trying to raise awareness of what I call ‘compassion fatigue,’ ” says Quinlan. “This is the physical, intellectual and spiritual exhaustion experienced by many OR nurses and surgical techs that they may not even be aware of. But it comes through in their speech, behavior and, ultimately, their job performance.”

For OR nurses and surgical techs, compassion fatigue can manifest itself in many different forms, she says. These include feelings of detachment from your patients, a difficulty in relating to patients and coworkers, and going through the motions of your job in a robotic way, without any real compassion or emotion, she says.

“Others might start to view you as cold and distant,” says Quinlan. “They might ask you if something’s wrong, but professional caregivers are often hesitant to acknowledge that they need care themselves.”

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Marla Packer-Perdunn, RN, who works at the Centers for Specialty Care in Deptford, N.J., can relate to this.

“Yes, I have experienced burnout — I think at some point everyone does. We work in healthcare, which is a caring profession that sometimes is not sensitive to the needs of its employees,” Packer-Perdunn says.

“We can become blasé to our surroundings and numb to the suffering of others,” she adds. “Personally, I find that I become very short and impatient with people when I’m feeling stressed and burned out.”

To resolve her burnout, Packer-Perdunn says she took a close look at what was missing in her life.

“I had given up my favorite hobby, karate, which was the one thing in my life that I looked forward to every day. So I decided to find a studio and resume my training. This has helped me resolve my feelings of anger, loneliness and solitude,’” she says. “I have made new friends and volunteer at the studio to help teach the children’s classes, which brings me a sense of fulfillment and joy.”

Minimize and Manage Stress

Kathy Kaehler, a better living expert and the author of several books on fitness and nutrition, emphasizes that it’s impossible to eliminate stress in your job or your life.

“Rather, your goal should be to minimize and manage your stress so it doesn’t eventually lead to job burnout,” Kaehler says.

Two of the most important keys to managing stress and avoiding burnout, says Kaehler, are exercising regularly and eating right.

“This isn’t a real news flash to anyone, but there’s a big difference between knowing you should exercise and eat right and actually doing it,” she says.

For starters, she says you need to make an “appointment” with yourself every day to exercise.

“Nurses and surgical techs work long hours so it might not always be realistic to work out an hour or longer every day,” she acknowledges. “Instead, strive for shorter bouts of exercise — even five minutes can make a difference, because exercise has a cumulative effect.”

For example, you can take five minutes here and there to do some plank exercises or jumping jacks or walk up and down a flight of stairs.

“This will have a tremendous ripple effect throughout your day when it comes to reducing stress and helping stay calm,” says Kaehler.

Planning is also the key to better nutrition, Kaehler adds. After spending years flying cross-country each week from her home in California to appear as a guest on “The Today Show” in New York, she found herself getting into bad eating habits. So she started what she calls Sunday Setup, when she does all of her food preparation for the week on Sundays so it’s easier to make healthy food choices all week long.

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A Change of Scenery

Sometimes, a change of scenery can help OR nurses and surgical techs better manage their stress and avoid burnout. Park says she experienced burnout at her previous job.

“There was no support for the staff,” Park says. “I think a lot of nurses go through burnout because of the politics in the workplace.”

This prompted her to take a different track in her nursing career and pursue travel nursing.

“I knew that I still wanted to do OR nursing, but I felt like a change of scenery would help, and travel nursing was something I always wanted to do,” she says. “So I made the big jump and decided to pursue it.”

Doughty, who transitioned into the OR after managing the ICU, also decided to try something different to manage her stress and avoid burnout.

“Coming into the OR was exciting, but I think I overextended myself in the beginning. I learned a lot but started to feel very negatively about coming to work,” she says. “I knew I had to make some changes or I would run myself away from a job I really liked.”

So Doughty decided to take on the OR personnel schedule.

“This was an outlet that benefitted the department and me. It gets me off the floor occasionally and allows me to use my talents in a different manner, while giving me a break and making my job more manageable,” she says.

Let Go of Control

Quinlan encourages the OR nurses and surgical techs she works with to understand that they can’t control everything.

“Control is an illusion,” she says, “especially in the OR, where things can change on a dime. So you have to be willing to be adaptable. Be open to whatever the day or night brings, instead of being resistant and inflexible if everything doesn’t go the way you planned.”

Packer-Perdunn advises OR nurses and surgical techs who are feeling overly stressed and burned out to do a little soul searching.

“Look deep inside yourself and try to find out what is the missing factor in your life,” she says. “This is a difficult thing to do objectively.”

And Park stresses the importance of taking time for yourself to relax, and scheduling some “me” time in your calendar.

“Or try something new like I did. Sometimes, a change of scenery can get you excited about your job again and help you see things from a new perspective,” Park says.