Nurses Driven By Desire to Help Others Might Be More Apt to Burn Out

A new study suggests that nurses motivated by altruism experience more stress. 

Nurses who are primarily motivated by a desire to help others, rather than by enjoyment of the work or the lifestyle, are more likely to burn out on the job, according to a new study. Researchers also found that nurses who pursued their career for other reasons found the job less stressful, more satisfying, and were better able to interact personally with patients.

When Mindful spoke with Bronnie Ware, nurse and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, she said it was meditation that allowed her to overcome burn out and return to the job.

“I looked after dying people for eight years, I ended up burning out because I wasn’t looking after me,” says Ware.

Ware says her mindfulness practice allowed her to take time for herself, and in turn, better help her patients:

I learned through meditation that compassion starts with yourself. It was my biggest lesson: self-love, to be gentle with myself. I was suicidally depressed. I couldn’t have survived without meditation. It just taught me to celebrate my vulnerability and my humanness, and to realize how much was not about me. We all get conditioning from family, peers, and society. Compassion really allowed me to have compassion for myself and for other people. I was working at a birth center for a little while at the same time I was working with the dying, and that taught me to see everyone as the baby they once were, with that innocence and vulnerability we’re born with. Compassion has really allowed me to detach from other people’s stuff. I just have to look after me and love me.

Nurse and doctor burn out 

As the problem of nurse and physician malaise is pervasive, universities are responding by taking steps to provide their medical students with better ways to cope. Here’s what one university is doing to help students face the many challenges they will meet in their future careers: In January 2015, medical students at McGill University in Montreal will take part in a mandatory Mindful Medical Practice program, an area of study the university previously offered only as an elective.

“If we are to take the role of physicians helping to create the conditions for healing seriously, then we need to use what we know about how to create those conditions and find ways to effectively embody and teach our students what we say we value,” says program director Stephen Liben. “A mindful medical practice is one way this can be done.”