My Experience With Burnout

An article describing my experience with burnout as an ICU nurse. I had been in the ICU for over 10 years before I could let go. I am now on a healthier path and enjoying nursing again.


For me it started four years ago. Like many nurses I was experiencing burn out. I had been a critical care nurse for six years in a large university medical center. In the beginning I started to feel a lot of anxiety when at work. I had the skill and the knowledge to do the job but over the years the emotional and physical stress had caught up to me.

I preferred to work night shift and with that came the overwhelming responsibility of watching over the waves of new nurses that would all start on nights. There would be shifts when I would look around and realize that my options for resources that night were nurses with less than one year of experience. I would just hope that everything went smoothly.

I started looking for jobs outside of the ICU environment.

Every time I would think about leaving the job that I had loved for so long, I would think it's not time yet, I will know when I've had enough but not yet. So the emotional blows kept coming and I kept barely holding on because I knew that I was making a difference in the lives of my patients.

To help with the burnout I started cross training in different areas. That helped for a little while as it changed things up for me. I would talk things over with my supervisor, who was also a great friend. She suggested going back to school. She knew that this was something that was always in the back of my mind and encouraged me to get started.

Just as I was finishing up my school application the educator position for our ICU opened up.

Instantly I knew I had to apply. I thought it was the perfect move for me. I thought for sure this would help me re-ignite my passion for critical care nursing. I got accepted into the Masters in Nursing Education program and got the educator position at the same time. I was so excited for both.

School was a big adjustment and very stressful but I was really enjoying the new role as educator. I felt like I was making a difference again and impacting the new nurses as they went through their internships. This was merely just a band-aid for what was still looming below-burn out was still present, I was just distracted from it for a while.

The demands of the job increased my fire and passion slowly decreased. I was working long hours and filling in on the unit when we were short. I felt like I was being pulled in a million directions. I wanted to make sure that the new nurses had the best chance for success, I wanted to give my patients the best care possible and I wanted my ICU to be the best in the hospital.

Nurses on the unit were also showing signs of burnout and disengagement. Negativity was spreading like wildfire. It was really hard to keep trying to be positive when I was surrounded by negativity. Seasoned nurses were starting to leave, others were starting nurse practitioner programs, and some were transferring to different departments or hospitals to change their scenery.

There were not many of us who thought we could sustain life as an ICU nurse for the rest of our careers. We found solace in talking to each other but that did not solve any of our problems, just let us know that we were not alone. The demands on the nurses were constantly growing yet the time to complete the growing amount of tasks was not. I would try to talk to family and they would try to help, but they just could not understand. They would try and remind me of the good that I was doing and the lives that I was positively affecting. My response would always be "but at what cost?" This job was killing me-emotionally, physically and spiritually.

I now knew it was time to let go. At this point I had now been an ICU nurse for over 10 years. The thought of leaving the ICU broke my heart but I had to finally put myself first. I started looking for jobs but I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I was just about to finish my masters program so there were many options open to me.

While I was searching for jobs and interviewing for various positions I attended the American Association of Critical Care Nurses National Teaching Institute. I went with a heavy heart knowing that I would not be an ICU nurse for much longer. I soaked in all the education that I could and enjoyed every moment. For the little time I had left I wanted to try and make a difference in my ICU.

It took me a couple of months to find the right job but I did. I took a job as a nursing supervisor in an outpatient clinic. It was so hard to face the reality of leaving what was always my dream job but I knew I had to do it.

I really enjoyed my new job. I started working out with a trainer, eating healthier, and since it was a Monday through Friday job I was finally on a normal sleep schedule. I still mourned the loss of my identity as an ICU nurse but it finally hit me that I did not miss the reality of what it is now to be an ICU nurse, but what it used to be. I could not ever get that back and that gave me comfort in my decision to leave.

Looking towards the future I still have a passion for nursing and changing lives, I will just have to figure out a new way to do it. My dream to impact the nursing world is still very much with me.

Jessica Strasen RN, BSN, MS

I graduated from nursing school in 2004 and obtained my Masters degree this summer. One day soon I hope to start teaching at a nursing school and have the chance to positively impact the lives of nursing students.

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2 Articles; 776 Posts

I'm interested in hearing more about how ICU has changed even in your relatively short career ("what it used to be"). And is there anything you think you or your hospital could have done differently that really would have helped you avoid burnout, or was it fairly unavoidable?

tokmom, BSN, RN

4,568 Posts

Specializes in Certified Med/Surg tele, and other stuff. Has 30 years experience.

Research shows that nursing students are coming into nursing with signs of burnout, so we are already behind the eight-ball when it comes to prevention. OP, I too suffered and after I realized that my identity wasn't what I did as a profession, that I was able to let go. I quit the profession entirely for nearly 5 years and only went back after my husband became ill.

I went back into my same field (med/surg) and have been able to keep my head above water, though I flirt with burnout on really bad days. I think it's key to work for the right facility. Only after leaving my other hospital and finding my current facility, did I realize that it's not the job that causes us to turn out backs on nursing, but the facility that understaffs and expects us to take on more, while keeping patients safe.

What I find sad about your post is the statement you make about not feeling like you are impacting people's lives. EVERY nurse impacts a life. You don't always have to do CPR or diagnose a problem to be a nursing hero. :)

Like you, I felt that if I didn't have any impact because I don't do direct patient care. day I was sitting with a state surveyor (every nurses nightmare, lol) and to break the awkward silence, I asked why she chose to be a surveyor. She became rather indignant but her response was similar to what I mentioned above. She said she impacted patient care, only in a different way by keeping patients safe.

I had never thought about it that way, but it really makes sense and helped me be at peace with my current position.

tokmom, BSN, RN

4,568 Posts

Specializes in Certified Med/Surg tele, and other stuff. Has 30 years experience.

One of my favorite quotes:

"In traditional Native American teaching, it is said that each time you heal someone, you give away a piece of yourself until, at some point, you will require healing.”

~Native American Quote

bbear2102, MSN, RN

3 Articles; 11 Posts

Specializes in ICU and Education. Has 15 years experience.

I think that over the years that I have been a nurse healthcare in general has changed greatly. The expectations of nurses over the years have increased while support has not. Especially in the last five years it seems as though healthcare has been moving in fast forward. Electronic health records, new guidelines set for reimbursement, and documentation requirements changing on almost a weekly basis takes its toll. Even though in the grand scheme of things ten years is not that long there were only a handful of nurses in my ICU that had more experience than me. I'm not sure at this point if burnout is inevitable or something can be done to avoid it altogether, but I do believe it will take complete support from hospital leadership to make a change.

bbear2102, MSN, RN

3 Articles; 11 Posts

Specializes in ICU and Education. Has 15 years experience.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I think it helps to hear that others have had the same thoughts and feelings.

bbear2102, MSN, RN

3 Articles; 11 Posts

Specializes in ICU and Education. Has 15 years experience.

what a beautiful quote, thanks for sharing!

Specializes in ICU.

Thanks for the topic; it is very relevant to me right now.

I just about broke last week. I don't know if I have bad karma, or if it was just my turn to get hit with the bad luck stick, or what. Every single night I had the crap absolutely hit the fan in spectacular fashion. I also had total energy vampire families in every room all week long. I have never felt as burned out as I did walking out those doors this weekend. One of the shifts I ended up in tears. By the end of the third shift I honestly didn't care about anything anymore, I was just totally numb from emotional/sensory overload.

I had taken this week off as PTO months in advance because I had a function I was going to this week. The plans fell through, but I can't even tell you how lucky I was things lined up the way they did. The last night I worked was Friday, and today was the first day I had the energy to even get off the couch. I actually got something kind of artsy done today. I am sanding/repainting/putting new knobs on an ugly as crap old dresser that's going to be glamorous as all get out when I'm done with it. Just being here alone is refilling my spirit a little bit.

Sometimes you just have to get the heck out of there for a week or so. I know what you mean about changing specialties - I feel like even though I have only been a nurse for two years, I have thrown myself so hard into my specialty (also ICU) that I can't even imagine getting out. Doing all this critical care-related education, getting my CCRN, going to every specialty seminar/conference in my area, subscribing to and reading Critical Care Nurse, American Journal of Critical Care, etc religiously when I get them in the mail... studying stuff I don't understand on my own time on my days off so whatever it was won't trip me up again... It's hard to just say, "Yeah, okay, whatever," and walk away from all of that. I know we can change areas at any time, but I have invested so much time and emotions in ICU nursing I feel like I would be throwing away everything I've done to work in a different area.

Good luck with your new specialty. :)


454 Posts

Specializes in ER, Med-surg.

"I still mourned the loss of my identity as an ICU nurse but it finally hit me that I did not miss the reality of what it is now to be an ICU nurse, but what it used to be. I could not ever get that back and that gave me comfort in my decision to leave."

This was kind of a gut check to read. I love the ED- or maybe I should say I loved the ED? I love the adrenaline, the chance to help people when they're at their absolute worst, the chance to start with a patient straight off the street in dire straits and work as a team to get them to the cath lab or the OR or just cleaned up and put back to rights and sent home. I love when everything goes right and we fix 'em and I appreciate the privilege of being part of some of the most serious moments of people's lives even when we can't.

But more and more my days are less about tackling emergency medical problems and helping patients and more about chasing an ever-shifting documentation standard, taking care not of ER patients, but of angry admitted patients who've been boarded in a noisy, hot, overcrowded ED for days, and running non-stop until I'm bone weary not because we exist in a constant state of manufactured crisis due to chronic understaffing. I cried at work recently, and not because of a patient death, just because it was that bad. That had never happened to me before, not even as a new grad. I've been knocked down with upper respiratory problems I couldn't shake for weeks four times this year, and anxiety that I thought was under control has started to resurge, most often when I'm reminded of upcoming shifts, but also after work when I struggle to wind down enough to sleep (that's why I'm posting on AN at 0100, actually...).

I feel a sense of unimaginable relief when I fantasize about the kind of life happenings (winning the lottery, whatever) that would mean I never have to go back to work, and yet I can't bring myself to pull the trigger on changing specialties. Is that because I would really miss ER- not the ER I loved when I first started or the ER that's so gratifying when on rare occasion we have the staffing and the opportunity to do things the way they should be done, but the ER as it actually exists now, an exhausting, physically and emotionally draining nightmare of impossible demands? Or is it because I identify as "an ER nurse" so much that it's hard to imagine giving that up, even if it's making me miserable?

Great essay. Incredibly thought-provoking. Thank you for writing it.


861 Posts

Specializes in Med Surg. Has 4 years experience.
we exist in a constant state of manufactured crisis due to chronic understaffing.

This is such an astute observation. Each shift is the same crisis and its not due to the patients. It doesn't matter the unit, it's all the same. We get told it's due to the nursing shortage, that there aren't applicants applying. I would think that would trigger discussions as to why nurses aren't applying. Hopefully it is. All I know is that nursing, and healthcare in general are very dangerous places to be right now. It's scary.


316 Posts

Hello. And Bye. #4532#8900#1432

What does this mean?


32 Posts

I absolutely feel 100% burnout. I'm so embarrassed to say I've only been a nurse about 3 years and I want out. I started on m/s tele floor and I dreaded everyday, so I was lucky enough to go to ED (or so I thought). It is bare bones staff, especially at night and my anxiety is even worse! A lot of the nurses have only been in my ED a year (some only been a nurse that long!) because with changes most of the very experienced ones left. Like some of you have said, its not the profession I hate, its what administration and management is making it. I feel like my license is constantly in jeopardy. I don't think I am being fair to myself or my family by living with the constant aches and pains of the depression and anxiety I am having everyday b/c of my job. It's affecting MY quality of life and it's not worth it to me anymore, but I too am scared to jump ship into another area of nursing (non bedside specifically), especially with not a whole lot of bedside experience. Ugh, I almost regret choosing this career, I feel trapped.

But I'm to the point where I could say screw it, my happiness and health is more important. I just need direction and answers and courage! Thank you for posting this, even though I am a newer nurse I see the same things going on in healthcare that you all are seeing and it is terrifying!