Academic journal article Online Journal of Issues in Nursing

Why Emotions Matter: Age, Agitation, and Burnout among Registered Nurses

Academic journal article Online Journal of Issues in Nursing

Why Emotions Matter: Age, Agitation, and Burnout among Registered Nurses

Article excerpt


Knowledge of the emotional demands facing today's nurses is critical for explaining how work stressors translate into burnout and turnover. Following a brief discussion of how the experience of burnout relates to the nursing shortage, we examine the scope of nurses' emotional experiences and demonstrate that these experiences may be particularly consequential for understanding the higher levels of burnout reported by younger nurses. Using survey data collected from 843 direct care hospital nurses, we show that, compared to their older counterparts, nurses under 30 years of age were more likely to experience feelings of agitation and less likely to engage in techniques to manage these feelings. Younger nurses also reported significantly higher rates of burnout and this was particularly true among those experiencing higher levels of agitation at work. We conclude by suggesting the need for increased awareness of the emotional demands facing today's nursing workforce as well as the need for more experienced nurses to serve as emotional mentors to those just entering the profession.

Citation: Erickson, R., Grove, W., (October 29, 2007). "Why Emotions Matter: Age, Agitation, and Burnout Among Registered Nurses" Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Vol. #13, No. #1. Available:

Key words: anger, age, burnout, care work, emotions, emotional labor, emotion management, nursing shortage, nurse well-being, nursing work environment

"You can recruit till the cows come home, and that's what we see nurse recruiters in hospitals doing. Pull out all the stops, do the sign-on bonuses, basically bribe them in some way to get them in the door. But until you can stop the bleeding, they're coming in the front door and leaving out the back door" (Bozell, 2004).

In 2002, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that the United States would be 800,000 registered nurses (RNs) short of the national need by the year 2020. Recently, this number has increased to over one million RNs short of the need by 2012 (BLS, 2004). Although there has been some indication that the entry of older nurses into the profession, along with efforts to recruit foreign-born nurses, have helped to ease the shortage, scholars project that the predicted trends are likely to continue (Auerbach, Buerhaus, & Steiger, 2007; Buerhaus, Donelan, Ulrich, Norman, & Dittus, 2006; Larkin, 2007). As such, the need for understanding the factors contributing to the nationwide shortage has never been greater.

The current shortage is a problem of both supply and demand (American Hospital Association, 2006). As the population ages, there is increasing demand for nursing care both in hospitals and nursing homes (Hecker, 2001). At the same time, fewer individuals are choosing nursing as a career, the most experienced nurses are quickly approaching retirement age, and others have been leaving the profession before they reach retirement age citing poor working conditions as their reason for doing so (Buerhaus et al. 2006; Gordon, 2005; Hecker, 2001; Pinkham, 2003; van Betten, 2005). These trends have led many to speculate about the causes and solutions to the current shortage of registered nurses. In what follows, we show how attending to the emotional dimensions of nurses' work environments provides new insight into the experience of burnout and why younger nurses may be particularly at risk for experiencing high levels of burnout and, potentially, lower rates of retention.

Burnout and the Nursing Shortage

Burnout is a unique type of stress syndrome that is fundamentally characterized by "emotional exhaustion" (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Because of the nature of their work, health care professionals are at especially high risk for experiencing the emotional exhaustion component of burnout. …

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