Nurses Who Care the Most Burn Out Fastest

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Photo: ERproductions Ltd/Corbis

Here’s an understatement: Nursing is a tough job. It’s physically and mentally demanding, and often pretty disgusting; at the same time, nurses are expected to fit the stereotype of the ceaselessly kind caregiver. But being too invested in that last piece of the puzzle can backfire for some nurses, a new study shows

Nurses who care the most — the ones whose primary motivation for getting through the workday is their innate desire to do good and help others — are also the ones who are most likely to burn out, according to new research presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual conference.

The study, led by University of Akron assistant sociology professor Janette Dill, surveyed 730 nurses in a large Midwestern health system with hospitals in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The researchers asked the nurses to fill out a survey answering questions designed to measure their level of burnout, a type of stress characterized by emotional exhaustion. Other questions sought to identify the nurses’ primary motivation for doing their job: Were they there to help others? Was it mostly the money that kept them going? Or did they genuinely enjoy the work itself?

Dill and her colleagues found that the nurses who most wanted to help others — what the researchers called "prosocial motivation" — were most likely to show signs of burnout. Those who were motivated by the lifestyle nursing allowed them to afford or by the fact that they enjoyed their work didn’t seem to be at risk of burning out, and they were also less likely to say they intended to quit their jobs within the next year.

Dill explained the importance of her findings in the press release:

According to Dill, those being served by workers in most occupations do not really care about the worker's motivation for choosing that career. After all, as long as your car gets fixed properly, it doesn't much matter whether the mechanic loves cars, only cares about making money, or simply enjoys using power tools.

However, Dill says health care is different. "We expect women to go into these jobs because they love the people that they're caring for, and this is their primary motivator."

If that cultural assumption can be changed, she says, more men might be attracted to nursing and "might not necessarily feel that their whole self has to be devoted to their patients — that they can value their job for other reasons as well."

It’s not like it’s wrong for a nurse to want to help others, and indeed it’s an important part of the job. But it’s time, the authors argue, to stop conflating superhuman kindness with the business of caregiving.