12.3 Identifying Stress in Self

Health care professionals must recognize emerging signs of stress that may result from job demands and the nature of health care work. There are a variety of ways that stress can manifest itself. Taking action early can help to prevent workplace burnout. Burnout can be manifested physically and psychologically with a loss of motivation for one’s work. Nurses and other health care professionals must mitigate stress and burnout to sustain engagement with their profession. Failure to acknowledge the implications of professional burnout only exacerbates the cycle as stressors are transferred to remaining team members and colleagues, resulting in the potential for attrition and turnover.

Although the term “stress” often has negative connotations, it is important to remember that not all stress is considered harmful. Normal stress, also referred to as “eustress,” does not have lasting consequences and is successfully managed by the individual who is experiencing it.[1] Normal stress, when successfully managed, can increase awareness and focus, resulting in feelings of motivation and competence in the individual who is experiencing it. For example, normal stress may be experienced by a nursing student as they organize their weekly planner specifying time for class, study time, work shifts, or meeting with friends. Although the calendar looks busy, the student can use the stress resulting from a “time-constrained schedule” to motivate oneself to be efficient in completing tasks. This student may feel great satisfaction as they cross off tasks on the “to-do” list. Hopefully, as task achievement occurs, the student transitions from feelings of stress to feelings of empowerment.

Conversely, harmful stress, also referred to as “distress,” occurs when stress is not adequately self-managed. Harmful stress is reflected by physical, mental, and behavioral manifestations.[2] See Figure 12.2[3] for an illustration of an individual experiencing harmful stress. Harmful stress can lead to burnout and exhaustion, and if left unaddressed, it can have significant health implications for the individual experiencing it. Let’s return to the example of the nursing student reviewing their busy schedule. Harmful stress can be experienced by a student looking at their busy weekly schedule and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Rather than focusing on manageable tasks and crossing items off the list, this student is reluctant to take action and feels distress regarding where to begin. The student demonstrating harmful stress may struggle with overwhelming fatigue, irritability, and may feel overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy at one’s ability to meet the task requirements.

Photo showing a woman with hands to face
Figure 12.2 Harmful Stress

Harmful stress can impact the employment setting as well. It can damage staff engagement, cause significant physical manifestations, and impede the ability of the employee to safely perform work. Harmful stress can quickly result in the breakdown of collegial relationships and also influence the overall practice environment. Potential signs of harmful stress are described in Table 12.3.

Table 12.3. Harmful Stress: Physical, Mental, & Behavioral Manifestations[4]

Physical Headache

Joint discomfort

Sleep disturbance

Cardiac abnormality (e.g., heart rate, rhythm changes)

Increased blood pressure

Dry mouth


Constipation or diarrhea

Excessive sweating



Mental Anger


Mood changes


Conflict with friends, family members, coworkers

Isolation of self from others

Reduced self-confidence

Behavioral Increased alcohol consumption

Smoking or drug use

Overeating or loss of appetite

Increased arguments with coworkers

Increased errors in the workplace

Nurses and health care professionals should be mindful of the physical, mental, and behavioral manifestations of harmful stress so prompt action can be taken when signs begin to occur. Harmful stress must be addressed early so it does not continue to evolve and lead to career burnout. Additionally, stress can have significant implications beyond one’s career. An individual’s physical and emotional health and well-being are strongly aligned with positive stress management. Harmful stress that goes unaddressed can lead to unresolved physical ailments, deterioration in mental and physical well-being, and the breakdown of familial relationships. The negative impact of harmful stress can be difficult to overcome after it has taken hold of an individual.

It can be helpful to mindfully gauge how one is handling stress on a routine basis. See the link to the Perceived Stress Scale in the following box.

Gauge your current level of stress using the State of New Hampshire’s Perceived Stress Scale.

Stressors Resulting From the COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the inherent stressors that can occur in health care settings as a result of normal job-related tasks and demands, unique challenges and stressors have occurred for nurses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. See Figure 12.3[5] for an image of a COVID care provider. The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the profession. The COVID pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on nurses as they try to meet ever-expanding health care challenges placed on them. Hospitals are continuously overcrowded and needed medical equipment can be sparse.[6] Nurses are asked to provide frontline care to infectious clients with transmission-based precautions in isolation rooms.[7] These nurses then return to their home environments, hoping that they do not spread infection to their families while supporting the needs of the family unit. These continuous job and life stressors compound the physical and psychological demands on nurses. With little respite care for themselves, nurses are at risk for the impact of compounding stressors on their own health.

Photo showing a masked nurse walking down a city sidewalk
Figure 12.3 COVID Care Provider

  1. Bamber, M. R. (2011). Overcoming your workplace stress: A CBT-based self-help guide. Routledge.
  2. Bamber, M. R. (2011). Overcoming your workplace stress: A CBT-based self-help guide. Routledge.
  3. 4347213145_bec129a6ae.jpg” by Michael Clesle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
  4. Bamber, M. R. (2011). Overcoming your workplace stress: A CBT-based self-help guide. Routledge.
  5. 49855067292_d521d20931_o-e1626806176568.jpg” by Ted Eytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
  6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2021). The future of nursing 2020-2030: Charting a path to achieve health equity. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25982
  7. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2021). The future of nursing 2020-2030: Charting a path to achieve health equity. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25982


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Nursing Management and Professional Concepts Copyright © by Chippewa Valley Technical College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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