Healthcare News & Insights

Are your ER nurses suffering from death anxiety?

Nurses already deal with high stress from their jobs, but emergency department nurses might be at additional risk of suffering from “death anxiety.” 

Medical Team Working On PatientHospital leaders know that nurses are at high risk for job-related stress, which often leads to physical and mental conditions like fatigue or depression. As a result of their job burnout, they often become disengaged from their work, which can then lead to mistakes or patient safety issues.

Now, one researcher is warning leaders that nurses working in emergency rooms are being exposed to a particular kind of stress due to their environment — death anxiety.

Raising death anxiety awareness

Being surrounded by life-and-death situations can take a serious toll on ER nurses’ mental well-being warns Mike Brady, a doctoral research student lecturer and clinical supervisor paramedic at the Swansea University Open University South West Ambulance Service, in a new article for Emergency Nurse.

This thanatophobia, or “death anxiety” as Brady calls it, makes nurses hyperaware of their own mortality, causing their stress levels to skyrocket, and making them more susceptible to stress-related side effects and conditions.

It’s important facility leaders recognize the risks of death anxiety and make workers aware of the risk, as well, Brady says.

Additionally, execs should put support systems in place to help the nurses improve their own health, and prevent burnout and stress from affecting patients’ care.

To fight death anxiety, Brady recommends hospitals create education programs to make supervisors, nurses and paramedics aware of the issue. Programs could also help ER nurses prepare mentally for the strain of working in these areas.

He also recommends assessing staff involved in critical incidents against a trauma risk-management tool.

Another potential solution: Leaders can rotate emergency workers’ schedules to prevent staff from being overly exposed to death anxiety.

Accounting for compassionate nurses

Death anxiety touches on a common issue: Nurses are often affected by their work environment, especially nurses who are required to consistently show empathy and compassion to patients.

Research from the University of Bedfordshire has shown that the pressure to appear compassionate around the clock can be emotionally exhausting, and make nurses more likely to be affected by work-related stress.

The researchers surveyed 351 nurses and found that those who had to routinely show compassion each day were at a higher risk of suffering from fatigue and burnout.

Like guarding against death anxiety, preventing nurse burnout often comes down to what support systems the nurses have to help them manage their stress. The study also found that nurses with good emotional support experience better work-life balance, which helps them stay engaged in their work and prevent negative patient outcomes.

Leaders should consider different ways to provide this support. Researchers suggest methods such as peer coaches, journaling after work and reflective supervision, where staff share problems they’ve experienced with each other and senior staff members.

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