How Caring For Others Can Lead To Nurse Burn-Out


The last few years have seen a big rise in thinking around intrinsic motivation.  The likes of Dan Pink brought the matter to popular attention with his groundbreaking presentation to the RSA that was memorably captured in the video for the RSAnimate series.  Indeed, it’s a topic that I’ve touched on numerous times in my writing online, with a substantial volume of research from the open innovation world highlighting how a passion for one’s topic, an enjoyment of the work, and the freedom to go about that work in the way you see it are key to sustaining motivation.

It’s easy to imagine therefore that the extrinsic factors play no part at all in the way people motivate themselves to do something.  What if it isn’t quite so simple as that?

A recent study explored this question.  The subject of their exploration was a profession highly associated with intrinsic motivation - nursing.  Dating a nurse as I do, I’m probably as guilty as any of us in associating the profession with kind hearted people who go into work each day motivated by their desire to do good and to help the needy.  This perception is probably quite well entrenched, and healthcare workers are often who we think of when we talk about public ’servants’.

This probably matters more in nursing than in other professions.  I mean it’s unlikely that you’ll question the motivations of someone doing office work for instance.  They may get their kicks out of the work itself.  They may love helping their customers.  They may just enjoy picking up their salary each month.  Either is kind of valid so long as they do their work well.

Nursing doesn’t tend to enjoy that privilege however, with quite a heavy cultural perception that a nurse in their line of work for the money is not as good a nurse as the one with the strong intrinsic and pro-social motivators.  Care = kindness, right?

The study suggests however that this whole heuristic is rather unhelpful.  Indeed, they found that when nurses had a high level of pro-social motivation (i.e. they do it because they love caring for others), they were quite significantly more likely to report burnout and emotional exhaustion.  These poor nurses were emotionally drained and revealed that each new day was a source of dread.

The researchers suggest that this desire to care for others can sometimes lead to attempts to live vicariously through those other people, which leads to a blurring, if not a complete loss of, boundaries, which then leads to burnout.  The price paid for caring too much.

When the motivation was derived either from a love of the work itself, or from the salary that it provided them, this correlated with significantly lower levels of burnout, better physical symptoms, and lower desire to leave the profession.

Hopefully this kind of research will prompt a reassessment of how we judge the value of a nurse, both as members of the public, but more importantly for those in the healthcare industry charged with recruiting and retaining talented members of staff.

See also: Reasons Not to Become a Nurse




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