Burnout isn’t just something nurses can experience on the job, students can (and do) experience it as well. I see all the time in my Facebook group and, honestly, if you’re burning out as a student, there’s a good chance you’ll be at risk for burning out as a nurse. The job doesn’t get any easier when you start working, and in many many ways it becomes vastly more difficult. So, today we’ll be talking about burnout, how to recognize it before it gets too severe, and what you can do about it. 

Why might a nursing student experience burnout?

There are many reasons a nursing student may experience feelings of burnout. 

  • Nursing school is academically challenging, with a vast amount of material to learn and incredibly rigorous exams. 
  • The schedule is relentless. By the time you finish one exam or paper, it’s time to tackle the next priority item without any recovery period in between. Many students go weeks without having a free moment. Over time, this becomes emotionally, physically and mentally draining. 
  • The pressure to perform at a very high level is intense. Nursing school grading scales are brutal, with many schools considering any grade below a 77% or 80% as failing. This places an enormous amount of pressure on students to consistently perform at a very high level with every single assignment, quiz and exam. 
  • Online learning can add to the stress. Many students simply don’t learn optimally via distance education. This can lead to more stress, feelings of frustration, perceptions of inadequacy and, yes, burnout. 
  • Incivility in the clinical setting can be especially burdensome. Unfortunately, not all nurses enjoy teaching students and some are downright hostile about even having students present. This can lead to bullying behavior, be it overt rudeness or making students feel unwelcome. Being treated poorly in clinical is a huge contributor to nursing student stress and burnout.
  • Lack of support from family or friends. Nursing school is incredibly demanding and when you don’t have the support of your family, friends (and especially your spouse), this can be highly demoralizing and lead to feelings of intense loneliness and isolation.

What are the signs you may be experiencing burnout? 

Whether it’s on the job or in your nursing program, the signs of burnout remain consistent. 

  • Are you impatient and irritable with your classmates, family or friends? 
  • Do you feel you don’t have enough energy or motivation to continue?
  • Are you feeling less satisfaction from your accomplishments?
  • Do you no longer care about your grades or job performance?
  • Are you overly critical of your nursing program or your job?
  • Are you having difficulty focusing on your work or motivating yourself to get started on assignments or projects?
  • Are you missing deadlines or procrastinating so much you have to cram or pull all-nighters?
  • Are you experiencing a change in your sleep habits? Sleeping more than usual? Suffering from insomnia?
  • Do you feel resentful of the demands your nursing program (or job) place on your time? 
  • Do you blame nursing school (or your job) for everything that’s lacking or going wrong in your life?
  • Are you having stomach upset or headaches that are outside your normal experience?
  • Are you turning to alcohol, drugs or overeating to cope with your negative feelings?

How can you prevent or combat burnout?

  • Get a handle on your schedule. It’s very easy to feel like you are on a constant hamster wheel of projects, assignments, care plans, skills labs, exams, simulation labs, online modules and clinicals. When you take time to plan out your schedule using some kind of system (paper or digital), you become the master of your schedule. This can help you feel a sense of control and help you make time for things in your life that aren’t related to school. 
  • Avoid procrastinating. If you’ve planned out your schedule thoughtfully, you can avoid doing assignments and studying for exams at the last minute. Look objectively at how long a project or exam prep may take and plan accordingly.
  • Plan time off. All work and no play makes for a burned out nursing student. As you plan out your schedule, make sure you plan for things that bring you joy. Ideas include hobbies, funny movies, walking the dog, or playing with the kids.
  • Socialize socialize socialize. Make sure you regularly reach out to your friends/family outside of nursing school, but also make an effort to connect with your nursing school classmates as they are the ones who truly know what you are going through.
  • Exercise is highly effective for reducing stress. Try to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week (per American Heart Association guidelines). If you feel like you can’t take time away from studying to workout, consider combining the two. Pop in those earbuds and review topics by listening to the Straight A Nursing podcast!
  • Get outside daily if you can. Sunlight, fresh air and just being in nature are wonderful antidotes for stress. Take the books outside on a nice day, or take a quick walk every night after dinner.
  • Utilize positive coping mechanisms such as meditation, deep breathing, prayer, exercise, laughter, and spending time with family/friends.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat good food, drink more water than you do caffeine, up your intake of whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies. Limit processed and fast foods.
  • Reward yourself regularly. It can be motivating to have something positive to look forward to at the end of the semester or after an especially busy period. 
  • Remember your WHY. You started this journey for a reason and that hasn’t changed. Remembering why you started can help you stay motivated to finish strong. 
  • Unplug on a regular basis. Nursing school requires a lot of time sitting at your desk working on the computer, researching online, doing online modules, etc… Take time every day to unplug, and designated additional electronics-free time on the weekends.
  • Decide on your non-negotiables. As you think about the things that can help keep you balanced, healthy and motivated, look at your schedule and decide what items you are NOT willing to give up for nursing school. These are your non-negotiables. Factor them into your schedule so you can plan accordingly. When you feel like you still have control over your life, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed or burned out in nursing school.

Will doing all this make nursing school less of a struggle? 

In a word, no. Nursing school is always going to be challenging and there are going to be times when you struggle no matter what. And that’s okay. Nursing school is difficult for a reason, and that reason is the immense responsibility you will carry as a nurse. So the answer is no. Doing all the things on this list will not change nursing school…but it will change you. You will have better time management skills, more joy, better health and improved coping mechanisms to help you get through the difficult weeks and months ahead. And you’ll come out the other side stronger and more resilient than ever before. 

One more thing before you go

I’d like you to do a simple task before you start tackling some of the bigger items on this list. Go to futureme.org and write a letter to your future self to be delivered at some point when you think you’re really going to need it. Maybe it’s during finals week, or right before you start next semester. Remind yourself of your why, give yourself a pep talk, tell yourself what strengths will get you over the next hurdle, and, most of all, show yourself some love. 

You’ve got this!


Listen to this while you’re on the go! Tune in to episode 144 on the Straight A Nursing podcast.


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