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Stress in Nursing

Critical for Workers and Organizations

Image of a nurse in foreground looking stressed with an older woman patient lying in a hospital bed behind her. The image depicts the need for the job stress program which would help nurses learn how to minimize stress, which would in turn translate to improved patient care.

Nearly 75 percent of nurses are concerned about acute and chronic effects of stress and overwork.

By Karen Angelo

Nursing can be a very rewarding profession, however, it can also be extremely stressful both physically and emotionally. 

More than 75 percent of nurses are concerned about acute and chronic effects of stress and overwork, according to the 2011 American Nurses Association Health and Safety Survey. 

Research on the health effects of stress over time shows an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders and fatigue. The body’s response to stress increases the “stress hormone” cortisol, blood pressure, blood cell clumping and blood vessel hardening, all of which increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. Higher levels of stress are also associated with unhealthy eating patterns, low physical activity, disrupted sleep, and smoking. 

One of many causes of stress is job strain, a work condition where nurses experience high job demands but low control over the work environment. 

“An example of job strain is a nurse who has been assigned more patients than he can deliver quality care to without authority to make decisions himself,” says CPH-NEW Research Affiliate and Assoc. Prof. Nicole Champagne. “There are significant health implications associated with job strain, particularly a higher risk of death due to heart attack and other adverse events related to cardiovascular disease.” 

It is in the interest of both nurses and the organizations they work for to reduce stress on the job. Employers may experience a rise in health care costs, periods of disability, absenteeism and job turnover. Organizations may also face quality of care issues since studies show that stress can lead to an increase in medical errors. 

One way to help with the role of high demand nursing jobs is for employers to give nurses some degree of control over tasks and decision-making responsibility. Another way to combat this lack of control is to develop a supportive work culture. 

These strategies and more are discussed in an online education program Job Stress: A Continuing Education Program for Today's Nurse. It was developed by experts at UMass Lowell and CPH-NEW.

Nursing Prof. Barbara Mawn, one of the collaborators of the online education program said: “Many nurses accept stress as ‘part of the job.’ This ingrained cultural perception in the healthcare environment is often reinforced by organizational policies. Developing a healthy work environment requires a concentrated effort. Empowering nurses and educating health care administrators is a first step. One of the major goals of CPH-NEW is to serve as a resource for nurses and healthcare facilities in order to promote a healthier workforce.”