Differentiating Nurse Burnout From Boredom

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, writes a monthly post for this blog and works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology.

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Nurses frequently discuss burnout. Sometimes it’s called compassion fatigue. Regardless of which term, nurses are at risk because our work requires complex technical skills, an expanding knowledge base, physical endurance, and critical thinking, since a patient’s symptoms often do not present in a manner described in the textbooks studied in nursing school.

Above and beyond this, nurses are expected to display warmth and caring towards their patients, even ones who are rude and argumentative. This alone requires character and self-discipline. Add inadequate staffing ratios to the mix, and it’s easy to understand that at some point, a nurse may become susceptible to burnout or compassion fatigue.

Nursing school graduation and passing NCLEX don’t make you a nurse. These milestones earn you a place at the starting gate. It’s up to the individual nurse to navigate her or his career towards growth and longevity. I clearly remember, several years into my practice, recognizing that I’d reached a point of expertise in which I might not know exactly what to do in any emergency, but whatever intervention I chose would be safe and maintain a patient until the doctor or code team arrived. This was around the same time I stopped feeling nauseous every time I pulled into the hospital parking lot for work.

Lately, however, I’ve wondered if sometimes what is labeled burnout might actually be boredom?

This sounds crazy, I know. How can someone be bored in a fast-paced profession in which lunch breaks, if they exist at all, are short, and holding one’s urine for an entire shift is a worn-out cliché?

The answer: Even tasks requiring complex technical skills become repetitious once the nurse masters them. I think this happens more often than burnout. The nurse loses interest in the job and then becomes disengaged. Not finding the same fulfillment she or he used to have, this nurse is labeled burned out, when in fact what they’re experiencing is boredom.

Boredom explains the phenomenon of why some nurses, rather than taking restorative leaves of absence, go on to start businesses and second careers as bloggers, fitness experts, artists, writers, photographers, life coaches, radio show hosts, novelists, improv comedians, etc. Many accomplish dual careers while attending school for advanced practice degrees. Or, nurses step away from the bedside and become hospital supervisors, department managers, clinical instructors, nursing school instructors, members of their state’s board of nursing, or officers of a local professional organization.

Even new age nurses, authorities on the subject of burnout, become yoga instructors, massage therapists, or experts on herbal medicines and complementary therapies in conjunction with their nursing practices.

Generally speaking, the more a nurse talks about burnout prevention, the more engaged he or she becomes with activities within or outside of nursing.

According to my online dictionary, burnout is defined as:

1 the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion: good carbon burnout |

[ as modifier ] : a burnout furnace.

2 physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress: high levels of professionalism that may result in burnout | you’ll suffer a burnout.

• informal a dropout or drug abuser.

3 failure of an electrical device or component through overheating: an antistall mechanism prevents motor burnout.

The nurses described above do not fit the definition of burnout. However, the activities they springboard to suggest they are avoiding boredom, defined as:

the state of feeling bored: the boredom of afternoon duty could be relieved by friendly conversation.

My search became really interesting when I searched burnout and boredom in a thesaurus:

Burnout No entries found.

Burnout is the cessation of the ability to go on. There’s no other word for it. If a nurse reaches the point of burnout, he or she should probably seek physical and mental health help. Synonyms for boredom, however, read like the list of symptoms nurses use when they believe they are talking about burnout:

Boredom (Thesaurus)

his eyes were glassy with boredom: weariness, ennui, apathy, unconcern; frustration, dissatisfaction, restlessness, restiveness, lethargy, lassitude; tedium, dullness, monotony, repetitiveness, flatness, dreariness; informal deadliness.

Recently, I had an opportunity to survey this idea among nurses while attending a new employee orientation. A few were new grads, but most were experienced nurses changing jobs. Over and over I heard someone say, “I think it’s good for nurses to change specialties or employers every seven to 10 years to stay fresh,” or, “It was hard to give up my cardiology skills to work outpatient, but I needed to shake up my approach to nursing,” and, “I’m glad I worked in my current specialty for a while, but now I’m ready to go back to the ICU. It’s important not to get bored.”

It seems counterintuitive, but for these nurses, engaging challenges and growth was their tool for combating what is often mistaken for burnout.

What do you think?

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2016-11-21T13:06:45+00:00 August 22nd, 2013|career, nursing perspective|7 Comments

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About the Author:

JParadisi RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of JParadisiRN, and blogs frequently for TheONC.org, and Off the Charts, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing.

7 Comments

  1. […] Differentiating Nurse Burnout From Boredom (ajnoffthecharts.com) […]

  2. Christine Lacedra August 31, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Very interesting, thought-provoking and well written article. I have suffered from both boredom and burnout. And I have found a HUGE difference between the two. I think many nurses enjoy the change, learning and fast pace of nursing and having so many specialties and settings to choose from offers so much.

    However, the system we work under with its pressures as well as the kind of people (caring) who are drawn to nursing puts us at higher risk for burnout.

    However suffering from boredom could also be the beginning stages of burnout and a reflection of withdrawing emotionally from the many frustrations and pressure.

  3. Kathryn Vaughn (@akvaughn) August 23, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Yeah, now I don’t feel so isolated. Because that is exactly what I have done. Now I am working on a graduate degree to be able to take it to a different level. Thanks for the validation!

  4. Peggy McDaniel August 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Great post as usual by JP! I tend to agree– as I am definitely one that has never stayed in one “job” for more than 3 years over the last 30 years as an RN. I have reinvented myself numerous times by changes in locale or role. I have loved nursing as a career for this very reason as this type of change is not ‘held against’ you. I’ve always told nurses that complained of Burnout OR Boredom that it’s their own fault really 😉 If you aren’t happy with where you are as a nurse, there are a myriad of opportunities available to you although it may have involved more education.
    This conversation applies to nurses with some experience overall. Recently that has been the frustration for new grads from what I read…the challenge to find suitable or desirable positions after graduation. I could start a big firestorm on here I’m sure by suggesting that this generation may expect too much from their first position. My first position was officially part-time, no benefits (NO health insurance), on a med/surg unit… but I worked full time hours pretty much every pay period. Sound familiar?

  5. Paul Steffens August 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Amen Dorothy! I’ve worked for the same institution for 35 years as an RN. Done progressive critical care, adult surgical-trauma critical care, education, management, and pediatric critical care. I’ve found whenevery I begin dreading coming to work every day that it is time to switch focus. Lately it has been easier as I have become involved in my profesional organization at a national level, and helped develop our facilities professional practice model and am currently engaged in developing a comprehensive nursing peer review process from the immediate bedside review to sentinel event review. Finding new ways to channel your knowledge and skills is definitely one way to alleviate boredom and maintain interest in coming to work.

  6. Mary August 22, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I would get bored after about 1 year in each department. I went to public health and stayed 25 years. It was always challenging and sometimes frustrating but never boring. I think it is because there are so many different areas in the subset, epidemiology, clinics requiring nutrition education, immunizations, etc. The main satisfaction was that I always had time to LISTEN to clients. I think this is what nurses miss now. There is so little, if any time, to really address the whole client and I don’t see any solution to this in the near future. But, I hope so.

  7. Dorothy Matheson August 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    I worked the same hospital for 30 years. Every five years I either changed floors neuro for pedi or job changed for me as the unit I worked in changed to a new Pedi hospital and then five years later it changed from infants and toddlers to cardiac patients.
    So I think the article is right. I did finally retire at 30 years because I was burned out and could retire.

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