The 21st-century healthcare environment is a challenging one. Whether nurses work in home health or the ICU, caring for nurses while they're on the job is the responsibility of the employer utilizing those nurses' expert skills.

In that regard, strong nurse leaders must be willing to advocate for the well-being of their nurses, assuring a workforce that is healthy, cared for and employed under conditions that ensure nurse safety and nurse wellness.

Burnout is real

As much as burnout may feel like a term that gets overused, this is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored. Employees in many industries suffer from burnout. In the helping and medical professions, this condition may indeed be more widespread than we know.

In Japan, "karoshi" is a popularly used word whose meaning can be translated as "death from overwork." While we may not (currently) have a similar term in the English language, nurses may very well be experiencing their own living death as they struggle with mandatory overtime, dangerous nurse-patient ratios and a culture that supports caring for patients, but not necessarily for the self.

There are scholarly articles, studies and dissertations written on the subject of burnout each year, and the nursing literature is no stranger to the dissemination of such information. It appears that the denial about nurse burnout has greatly lessened in the last decade, and now is the time when we should be witnessing the active and widespread pursuit of effective anti-burnout strategies.

Calling enlightened nurse leaders

At this point in nursing history, our profession needs enlightened, forward-thinking leaders who will take up the cause of burnout, implementing strategies to prevent it, as well as assisting those nurses who are already afflicted.

While hospitals and facilities may give their nurses gift certificates, pens, mugs, flowers and trinkets during Nurses Week each May, this is not a substitute for the active pursuit of policies and practices that will actually impact nurses in their daily lives.

Enlightened nurse leaders will take it upon themselves to talk to their nurses, elicit responses that illuminate the real-world challenges being encountered on the job, and also ask for input regarding how those nurses would themselves like those challenges to be addressed.

Policies can be put in place in a vacuum, but allowing staff to have a hand in drafting those policies is a form of leadership that brings the nurses into the conversation, helping them to feel heard and inviting them to be part of the solution.

Seeking best practices

A vast library of best practices for the on-the-job care of nurses and the prevention of nurse burnout is long overdue. If healthcare facilities have initiated programs that have been identified as successful, those programs must be studied closely, documented fully, codified and replicated elsewhere.

Best practices and evidence-based knowledge is central to medicine and nursing. It should be no different when it comes to making sure nurses are working in environments that are supportive and healthy.

An enlightened nursing ecosystem

In an enlightened nursing leadership ecosystem, we might see all 50 state nursing associations working together in order to document burnout in the nursing workforce.

The state associations might then create an online compendium of strategies for caring for that workforce in the interest of burnout prevention and workplace wellness. This compendium might take the form of a Wikipedia-like user-generated encyclopedia of successful (and unsuccessful) nurse wellness initiatives and practices.

Similarly, hundreds of disparate professional nursing organizations might form a nationwide taskforce or working group, with leaders, staff nurses, researchers and educators banding together in a concerted effort to tackle this issue with inspired collective action.

Nurses can well demand what they need and want, but it takes truly enlightened nursing leadership to document and codify that which is effective and recommended. Additionally, nursing leadership must stand up to the number-crunchers and healthcare stakeholders who demand more work from nurses without consideration for nurses' health and well-being.

An enlightened nursing ecosystem is indeed desperately needed, and courageous and powerful nursing leaders will bring it fully into being.