A pathway to a healthier you

Finding the right words – talking and asking about burnout

Burnout in the nursing and midwifery professions is real and should not be underestimated.

Let’s all take burnout seriously, be aware of the symptoms and work together to prevent it.

While no nurse, midwife or student should experience burnout, unfortunately many do says Mark, who like too many nurses and midwives has lived experience of burnout. 

It was while working in a large public sector intensive care unit that Mark experienced burnout because of his work. At that time, he didn’t have the language to describe what he was feeling and name it as burnout. 

“I just knew that I wasn’t OK. Exposure to multiple deaths and trauma, a high stress work environment, unpredictable unrealistic workloads, lack of adequate resources and physical and emotional exhaustion had depleted me. 

“No one talked about burnout. It was just ‘you’re not your happy self, Mark’. I remember a pastoral care staff member saying to me: ‘How are you, Mark?” after someone had died. I said: ‘I am really tired and sad.’ It was the first time someone had asked me that. There is incredible value in talking and asking someone what is going on.

Burnout – what is it

“Burnout is not just having a bad day, its work-related stress that may have a cumulative unwanted effect over time,” Mark says.

In 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised burnout as a medical condition in its International Classification of Diseases.
The WHO defines burnout as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. The syndrome is characterised by 3 dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional efficacy.

According to the classification, burnout specifically refers to phenomena in the ‘occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life’.
Effects of burnout on our health and our careers

The research has shown the effects of burnout can include cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal pain, depressive treatment, job dissatisfaction and premature exit from your profession.
Mark believes burnout is common among nurses and midwives for a number of reasons.
He said nurses and midwives expend a lot of ‘emotional energy’ each day being empathetic to those they care for, while also facing many frustrating system issues, such as lack of beds, delays in accessing referrals, staff shortages, occupational violence and a lack of resources to do the job. 

Ask your colleagues R U Ok

“In nursing and midwifery, we’re all in this together and we need to keep asking each other: R U OK.” 

 The R U OK? simple question is a vital opening to a conversation that could change a life.

Opting out – his only option

It was after a night shift in charge with 5 agency staff that brought it all to a head for Mark. “I thought ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I resigned that morning. I remember walking past a jewellery shop on the way home and thinking I could do that – go work in a jewellery shop. That looks like a fun job.”

The great sadness, he reflects, was around a perceived lack of support and acknowledgment of a chronic unrealistic workload which had left him wanting to leave the profession he loved. 

“When you’re in the service and care of other people, often you’re not wired or very good at putting your own needs or your own self-care first.

“Fortunately, I got the support I needed, studied counselling and made a commitment to do all I could to support other nurses and midwives at risk of burnout.” 

Life beyond burnout

Mark went on to work on an AIDS telephone counselling support service, the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, and spent 15 years as a Director of Nursing in aged care. 

He then went on to become Consultant and Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Nurse & Midwife Support for almost 7 years until he took up the role of Implementation Deputy Director at NMHPA in early 2023.

“What I like to communicate with others is that the constant in my varied career is that I have always been a nurse. It is part of my identity and a profession that I love. Find the right fit for you at each stage of your life. If you don’t like what you’re doing, there are so many other areas of nursing/midwifery you can try. If you’re stuck and can’t see the future – reach out and work through the process with us. We are here to support you to get back on your feet reconnect with hope and find your next opportunity.” 

Nurse Midwife Health PA – a safe place 

Mark says when our service commences on 18 March 2024, we will offer care and support for nurses and midwives experiencing sensitive issues in a welcoming, compassionate and non‐judgmental environment. It will be a safe place to connect and heal.

“What we’re really keen to reinforce is if you’re not feeling great about life, or yourself, or your work, then really connect and tap into that feeling. Honour it, own it and do something about it.”

“I’m always concerned about nurses and midwives experiencing burnout, including early career nurses and midwife students and graduates who often struggle and are at risk of experiencing burnout. 

Early career, individual support

“I think if we support our early career nurses and midwives and our students early on then we can set them up to be better prepared and more equipped to deal with some of the inevitable challenges they will face.” 

 “It’s a very individual experience for each nurse, midwife and student who goes through any complex health issue. Shared stories really support other people who might be going through a similar experience,” says Mark.

Hold onto hope, you will recover from burnout and we are here to support you on your pathway to be a healthier you.