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Nurse Burnout, Stress From COVID-19 Pandemic Pose Challenge for Leaders


Leading during a crisis requires strength, perseverance and calm. The COVID-19 pandemic created a demand on healthcare professionals that led to nurse burnout, feelings of conflict, guilt and overwhelming stress and anxiety.

As a nurse leader, increased stress comes from caring for your staff, patient care and administrative concerns. A discussion about recognizing and responding to nurse burnout and secondary traumatic stress must first begin with the leader being aware of his or her own burnout and stress. All caregivers also can benefit from evaluating and addressing their own nurse burnout before thinking of others. Besides caring for themselves, leaders can be role models by acknowledging and addressing their well-being during the response. Nurse well-being during the COVID-19 response begins with addressing the basic needs of the workforce. Similar to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, one cannot begin to address psychosocial concerns until basic logistical needs have been met.

The highest priority for a leader is the safety of the workforce, including personal protective equipment, staffing and exposure risk in ensuring patient care. While leaders are working tirelessly to address these concerns, the emotional toll mounts.

When we're faced with a problem we cannot solve, a supportive psychological response includes remaining calm, being honest in communication and listening compassionately. Leaders also must ensure they are able to find a safe space to seek support and address their anxiety and worry.

Tips to help combat nurse burnout

While it might seem impossible during a time of crisis, there are actions you can take to address your staff's well-being and ease the burden of stress and nurse burnout in other areas. While all of these strategies may not be feasible or applicable to your work environment, they address areas of concern for healthcare professionals that might be adding to their emotional burden.

  1. Housing, meals, and transportation: Consider housing accommodations for clinicians fearful of exposing vulnerable family members to COVID-19. As workloads intensify, support transitions to breaks and can transition home with healthy grab-and-go meals, gift cards for meal delivery or credits for transportation services.
  2. Support debriefing/emotional support: Use existing resources, such as chaplaincy, spiritual care and employee assistance programs to support debriefing after high stress or traumatic events. Acknowledge extraordinary circumstances through continuous awareness and frequent interventions, such as well-being huddles before or after shifts or a Going Home checklist.
  3. Reduce psychological burden: An effort should be made to remove nonessential tasks, education and electronic documentation. If possible, bundle information and tier dissemination so clinicians are not consistently interrupted throughout their day.
  4. Be a present, compassionate listener: At times, being a listening ear has more value than solving the problem. Whether through listening sessions, group debriefing or one on ones, the current situation requires compassionate listening so fears and anxieties are expressed.

Responding to the rapidly changing needs of the COVID-19 pandemic requires extraordinary leadership. Your work as a nurse leader is critical to not only the health and safety of the patients, but to supporting the emotional health of your workforce. In taking care of yourself and using recommendations to address the well-being of staff, you will lead with compassion and heart.

Check out our COVID-19 resource page

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