When a Nurse is Stretched Too Thin


Published: 02 July 2017

Nurses are strong and resilient, but everyone has a breaking point.

Like an elastic band stretched beyond its limits, nurses’ endurance can be challenged and pushed to the edge.

Staffing issues, poor management and untenable working conditions can just be too much. If your nursing career feels as challenging as this, it’s time to push back.

Beware The Snap

If you stretch an elastic band past the point of no return, it will snap, break and lash back at you by stinging your hand like an angry bee. When a nurse gets to a similar point, they may lash out at those around them (at work or home), or develop stress-based physical, psychological or emotional symptoms.

When the nurse reaches their limit, compassion fatigue may set in, and the quality of nurse-patient interactions and relationships may suffer.

Equally, personal relationships with friends and family may be negatively impacted as the beleaguered nurse tries to cope with a hopeless work situation.

The snapping point will look different for everyone but the outcome can be quite similar. Beware the symptoms of burnout and push back before it settles in for the long haul.

Determine Your Edge

The timeline for reaching your snapping point can only be determined by you, unless you have a counsellor, therapist or very astute colleague or loved one who can accurately read your emotional life and state of mind.

Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to determine what your edge is, as well as the strategies you will use to back away from this dangerous precipice.

Your edge may look like the aforementioned compassion fatigue scenario. Alternatively, you may develop digestive issues, chronic headaches or a host of other physical symptoms, especially while working, preparing for work or thinking about work.

Reaching your edge of tolerance for stressful struggles at work may lead to depression and anxiety. Negative workplace experiences can take you to places you assuredly would rather not go. How far are you willing to let your work drag you down into the muck and mire?

nurse attending counselling session

Take Self-Empowering Action

Taking self-empowering action in the interest of your wellbeing is what’s called for when you’re walking on a knife’s edge in your nursing career. Things generally won’t change on their own, so taking charge is key.

What can you do when the going gets tough? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Engage the services of a counsellor or therapist to help you work through the tangled emotions related to your career and work as a nurse;
  • Hire a career coach (preferably one who is a healthcare professional or nurse) so that you can initiate a plan of action in the interest of your career;
  • Meet with your faith leader for spiritual support;
  • Update your resume and make a determined effort to seek out a healthier work environment;
  • Talk and network with compassionate colleagues about your situation;
  • Listen to inspiring nursing and non-nursing podcasts about work, wellbeing, and careers;
  • Read blogs posts and articles that will help you make inspired plans for the next stage of your career;
  • Take time off in order to gather your thoughts and recover your health;
  • Utilise yoga, meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture, massage and other modalities that can decrease your levels of stress and trauma; and
  • Study emotional intelligence and dig deep into your own motivations and strategies for coping in a stressful world.


Whether you’re a staff nurse, manager, nurse researcher or nurse executive, stress and negative patterns may impact your health and your personal happiness.

Taking inspired action and backing away from your breaking point is key. Developing personal awareness and emotional intelligence will serve you well when the going gets tough.

Be aware of when you’re approaching your edge. When you know you’re getting close, take a step back, honestly examine your situation and feelings, and then initiate a plan of action to reverse the trend and get back on a positive track in your nursing career.

Additional Resources