Burnout Symptoms: Empowered Through Knowledge

Burnout Symptoms

I have learned the hard way that what I didn’t know that I did not know was a very scary place to be. Think that the previous sentence is a tongue-twister? You’re right about that! Want me to break it down some? Happy to!

So, burnout symptoms. Sure, we may hear about “nurse burnout”, but then what does that really mean?

As stated above, not knowing what you don’t know can be pretty scary. Here’s a real-world example to illustrate this point…

Is there something wrong with me?

As a brand new nurse, I was like most people would be. Scared. Overwhelmed. Terrified that I would do something wrong or that my coworkers wouldn’t like me.

And I was blessed with working for an organization that did have a nurse residency program (back in the early 2000’s, that was more rare than it is as of this blog post’s writing in 2018). And, yup, I also had an amazing preceptor! There were many supports in place that helped me through the first months in nursing.

However, no matter how hard I tried or what I put in at work, it never felt just right. In fact, maybe it was all of the trying that I did that pointed me to the quick burnout experience that I encountered.

I can say this- I never called what happened to me “burnout”. I didn’t even know that it existed or what the burnout symptoms were.

And that leads me to that confusing, tongue-twister statement above. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And being in that place of unknown is a very dangerous place to be!

I thought that something was wrong with me. I was mad at myself for feeling so emotionally exhausted. I figured I must not be a good nurse since I am coming home from work questioning my own sanity. “Is this how all nurses feel?” I wondered.

Name it to claim it.

Which leads me to the fact that knowledge is power. When we empower ourselves with the information, we can tackle our challenges head on.

We need to name the burnout symptoms- state them right out, here and now. This way, if you are reading and wondering, “Is it me?” you will have some answers to help you move forward.

And guess what? You are NOT alone. There are plenty of nurses out there that do NOT know what the burnout symptoms are or how to address nursing burnout. I have realized this after now being fortunate enough to present on nursing burnout and career resilience strategies to hundreds of nurses nationwide.

I am not alone. And you are not alone. How do I know? Nurses come up to me after EVERY time I present the material saying, “Gosh, I didn’t know that I was experiencing burnout! I just thought that being a nurse was tough… So glad to have these burnout symptoms know and the knowledge of their existence!”

Three Main Symptoms

In the 1970’s a research team led by Christina Maslach studied and ultimately constructed what has become the gold-standard in measuring employee burnout. The twenty-two question survey has been called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).

The MBI measures three main burnout symptoms. Let’s go over each of them, one-by-one.


This first burnout symptom will likely not surprise any nurse reading. It is that feeling of pure and total exhaustion. However, rather than just being tired and needing a good night’s rest- this exhaustion is chronic. It is difficult- nearly impossible- for you to recover.

Work feels chronically miserable. Even after you get quality rest- you are still tired.

You’re physically, emotionally, and mentally drained. Even when you take a break, such as going on a vacation or having three days off in a row, you can never fully recharge.


This next burnout symptom is a bit less obvious and somewhat trickier to tackle. As a nurse, you know when you’re tired. However, nursing itself, due to the sheer exhaustion of our profession can at times cause us to put up boundaries between ourselves and our work.

Here’s how this is a problem.

When you start to put up barriers between you and the people you are caring for (your patients), you run the risk of becoming sarcastic, cynical, or just plain “checked out”.

Have you ever had a difficult patient? OK, all eye rolls and jokes aside, we all have. And what happens when we take care of this difficult person over and over and over again?

We start to “vent” to our colleagues. And, yes. While some venting is necessary– going too far, for too long is actually spiraling you down into burnout even faster!

Being cynical or sarcastic about a patient is not normal. In fact, it may be a sign that you are experiencing burnout symptoms.

Lack of Efficacy

This final symptom of burnout shows up when you start to doubt yourself.

If you are leaving work asking yourself, “What’s the use? I don’t know why I keep at this. Am I even making a difference any more?” then you may be experiencing this final symptom of burnout.

Leaving work feeling unappreciated or as though your role is no longer making a difference in the outcome- that’s a definite sign that something may be wrong.

Knowledge is Power

Now that you have this information, you can do something with it! It is such truth when you realize that being aware of something- just naming it- can help you change it.

If you were unaware of the burnout symptoms or if you were experiencing them- now you have the above three main concepts to help you decide. And if you do say “yes” to the above, then you might be experiencing actual burnout.

The good news? With that information, can come change! Now you can decide if you’d like to take an action or not.

If not, then you likely will continue to experience burnout. And the rate of that burnout can speed up very quickly over time.

However, if you are at a place that you’d like to choose something different, then make a decision here and now to put your burnout to good use.

That’s right! Burnout does have a positive component to it. It is the very thing that can catapult us to a new and better nursing career. The question then becomes: are you ready for the ride?

What did we miss? What are some of the burnout symptoms that you have experienced as a nurse? Share what has helped you in the comments below and thanks for reading!

Elizabeth Scala, MSN/MBA, RNAbout the Author: Keynote speaker and virtual conference host, Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, partners with hospitals, nursing schools, and nurse associations to transform the field of nursing from the inside out. As the bestselling author of ‘Nursing from Within’, Elizabeth guides nurses and nursing students to a change in perspective, helping them make the inner shift needed to better maneuver the sometimes challenging realities of being a caregiver. Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is also a certified coach and Reiki Master Teacher. Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull.