Stress and Burnout Among Intensive Care Unit Nurses

Table of Contents


According to Masters (2013), burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased personal accomplishment. Unlike physicians, nurses work under exceptional conditions that expose them to stressful conditions. Ordinarily, nursing practitioners are expected to deal with life and death issues on a daily basis and there is no room for a nurse to claim that he or she is fatigued. They work under pressure with very little rewards.

Unlike critical care fellows who rotate through different units in the hospital, nurses work in the intensive care unit (ICU) indefinitely. Although relative lack of sufficient authority to manage urgent situations may render nurses liable to job stress and burnout, ICU nurses have not been found to suffer more stress than non-ICU nurses. While examining the relationship between burnout and demographic variables in 68 ICU nurses, Irwin and Rippe (2008) found only low-to- moderate levels of burnout in this population. However, consistent with previous studies, they discovered that younger and less experienced nurses who worked in the ICU full time were most prone to emotional exhaustion unlike their counterparts. Concerns for most nursing professionals usually revolve around making decisions that can have very serious repercussions on a patient’s life (Masters, 2013).

Nurses with fewer work place restrictions and thus greater economy have less anxiety and are more likely to advocate for their patients. The personality trait of hardiness can also protect stress and burnout among ICU nurses (Irwin & Rippe, 2008). Aiming not merely at survival in the face of difficult circumstances but at the enrichment of life, hardiness consists of the triad of commitment, control, and challenge. Commitment has to do with a sense of purpose expressed by becoming an active rather than a passive participant in life, control implies the tendency to behave in a way that influences life events rather than to feel impotent in the face of adversity, and challenge is found in the belief that change, instead of stability, is normal and a stimulus to enhance maturity rather than a threat to security.

Dealing with Stress and Burnout in the ICU

Although there are many past studies that have effectively addressed stress and burnout in the ICU, nothing much has been done to study outcomes. According to most researchers, working towards lessen stress among nursing practitioners is the best solution. This notwithstanding, stakeholders should come up with strategies that specifically target individuals, groups, and organizations.

At an individual level, personnel can learn to use time more efficiently, both in and out of the ICU, to establish more reasonable goals and to develop the ability to say no. A physician or nurse experiencing significant distress may need to seek individual supervision, training or psychiatric help. On the interpersonal level, groups and workshops have been reported as extremely useful for managing stress. Weekly and impromptu meetings have been described as being ideal for exploring ICU staff reactions to crises, conflict resolution, and discussion of feelings, experiences, and knowledge.


From the above discussion, it is obvious that nurses in the ICU are exposed to numerous situations that subject them to stress and burnout which in turn greatly affect their effectiveness at work. It is thus imperative to devise mechanisms that can be used to reduce stress and burnout so as to improve performance of the nurses.


Irwin, R. S. & Rippe, J. M. (2008). Irwin and Rippe’s Intensive Care Medicine. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Masters, K. (2013). Role Development in Professional Nursing Practice. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

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