Imagine a hospital setting, the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Here children with severe health problems live for days, weeks, even years. One infant came in with chronic respiratory failure. His improvement was slow, and he was susceptible to various infections. His mother, a single, minority parent with four other children under 5 years of age, quickly withdrew from the infant, eventually relinquishing custody to the court system. Fortunately, there was a nurse who took an interest in the child. Although the nurse had to cope with rotating medical staff, provide emotional, physical, and rehabilitative support, she formed a unique bond with the child and was crucial to the child's survival. After several weeks of working with the infant, the nurse began experiencing emotional and physical fatigue. She began to lose interest in the child and the unit, feeling hopeless in the infant's recovery. The burnout syndrome progressed to a significant depression, loss of concentration, and a desire to leave nursing. Although she didn't want to abandon the child, she requested to be removed from the unit (Kennedy 63).
Scenes like this are happening more and more frequently around the country. Burnout in nursing is growing into a real and tremendous problem. Burnout has been defined as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Kennedy 64). The causes of burnout are often self-evident: long hours, inadequate resources, demanding patients, and mediocre pay. Because of new managed health care demands, patients are being discharged quicker, and there is more paperwork to fill out, all while taking care of extremely sick patients. One nurse complained, "I have just enough time to choke some pills down their throats, and throw a tray of food into their rooms" (Dworkin 23). In addition to emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, burnout causes a loss of concern about patients, cynicism, and negativism (Haddad 25). Job dissatisfaction and burnout are among the top reasons behind the nursing shortage, which is expected to rise to one million in less than fifteen years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Another problem facing nurses is emotional labor, which can be just as serious as burnout. Emotional labor refers to jobs in which workers are expected to display certain feelings, for example, flight attendants, social workers, and day care workers. Arlie Russell Hochschild, the first scholar to deal with emotional labor, believes that controlling these emotions may lead to drug abuse, absenteeism, headaches, and sexual dysfunction (Miller 224).
Among the physical problems of burnout and...