Avoiding work overload as a nurse can be challenging. You likely wear many hats throughout each day — healthcare provider, educator and counselor among them. This, combined with the emotional and physical demands of each role, can lead to exhaustion and burnout if you are not careful. Identifying the signs of work overload early on can help you avoid negative consequences.
How Does Work Overload Happen?
It is important for nurses to be aware of how much time and energy their commitments require. Besides performing their duties as a nurse, many may go on to simultaneously pursue additional education, such as a Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) degree. They may also volunteer on employer committees as well as with other organizations throughout the community. Family and friends are also a consideration.
Even if you already have a lot on your plate, opportunities may arise that you don’t want to miss. For example, accepting a quality improvement project may seem completely doable, but it might leave you with little extra time when your patient load increases unexpectedly.
While overcommitting can happen to any nurse, those new to the job may be most susceptible if they are trying to prove their abilities and fit in. To minimize the likelihood of burnout, learning to manage your workload and other commitments is key for all nurses.
What Are the Signs of Work Overload?
There are many symptoms of work overload, all of which can negatively affect nurses, coworkers and patients. Here are a few indications of work overload:
Lower engagement — Nurses who are overworked may disconnect psychologically and become less engaged at work. Employee engagement levels are already low. Only 36% of the nation’s employees are “engaged in their work and workplace,” according to 2021 Gallup data. A study from Incredible Health found that more than one in three nurses plan to leave their jobs by the end of 2022, citing burnout, stress and inadequate pay. This highlights the connection between low engagement, burnout and poor retention in nursing, all of which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
More mistakes — As you take on more, the likelihood of making mistakes may increase as well. According to Medical Error Reduction and Prevention, it is estimated that approximately 400,000 patients experience “preventable harm” and 100,000 die prematurely each year due to medical error. Unlike many industries, mistakes in healthcare can have a deadly outcome.
Visible stress or exhaustion — Stress and exhaustion are natural byproducts when you are stretching yourself too thin. Taking on too many responsibilities often means not having time for enough sleep or self-care. Without time to rest and replenish, the state of your physical and mental health can suffer. For nurses, this can be compounded by challenging circumstances like shift work or the situations nurses have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients notice when nurses look tired, and it can lower their confidence in the care they receive.
More frequent illness — Constantly pushing yourself to the limit leaves little time for the body to recover, compounding stressors and potentially leading to more frequent bouts of illness. Certain health conditions may develop, too. Everyday Health cites numerous studies that have linked stress from work and other sources to various health conditions, illnesses and chronic diseases.
Learning Your Limits
Scaling back on unnecessary and unproductive commitments is crucial to avoiding work overload and is an important component of what psychologists have dubbed “proactive burnout prevention.” Consider these tactics to set your limits and avoid taking on too much:
Understand the scope — When asked to complete a task or project, make sure you fully understand the scope before committing. A task may sound simple, but in reality is much more involved than initially anticipated.
Make sure your skill set matches the project — Each nurse has a unique skill set. One nurse may complete computer work with ease, while another may thrive on patient engagement. Whatever the project or task, make sure it fits your skill set. While stepping outside your comfort zone and accepting work that goes against your natural talents is instrumental to growth, doing so too frequently may lead to overload. Advancing your nursing education can also help you develop the skills needed to meet the demands work may place on you, lessening the stresses a skills gap might worsen.
Offer an alternative — If you do not feel comfortable or able to accept an assignment, offer an alternative solution. For example, if you are asked to join a committee at work and feel it would stretch you too thin, consider recommending a coworker who may be interested in the opportunity. This demonstrates your willingness to help without putting more on your own plate.
Ask for something in return — Before accepting an assignment, negotiate your needs. If you are asked to pick up a weekend shift, see if you can have one of your weekday shifts off or either come in late or leave early. Try to negotiate so that the needs of all are met.
Politely decline — If you simply cannot take on another project and there are no suitable alternatives, you may have to politely decline. Be gracious and considerate, yet firm.
Your Health Matters
Though nurses have a lot on their plates, they may often be asked to assume even more responsibilities. Managing your commitments is imperative, though, not only for your health, but also for the health and safety of your patients. Learning your personal and professional limits can help you avoid work overload and the negative side effects that may accompany it.
Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington online RN to BSN program.