The impact of traumatic events on emergency room nurses: findings from a questionnaire survey

Int J Nurs Stud. 2012 Nov;49(11):1411-22. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2012.07.003. Epub 2012 Aug 5.


Background: Emergency Nurses are routinely confronted with work related traumatic events and hectic work conditions. Several studies report a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in these nurses. Coping and social support seem to play an important role in the development of PTSD.

Objectives: This study examines (1) the frequency of exposure to and the nature of traumatic events in Emergency Nurses, (2) the percentage of nurses that report symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, somatic complaints and fatigue at a sub-clinical level, and (3) the contribution of traumatic events, coping and social support to PTSD symptoms, psychological distress, somatic complaints, fatigue and sleep disturbances.

Design: Cross-sectional data from 248 Emergency Nurses, from 15 Flemish (Belgian) general hospitals, were analyzed.

Results: Emergency Nurses were found to be confronted frequently with work related traumatic events. Death or serious injury of a child/adolescent was perceived as the most traumatizing event. Almost one out of three nurses met sub-clinical levels of anxiety, depression and somatic complaints and 8.5% met clinical levels of PTSD. Levels of fatigue were high but not directly related to the frequency of exposure to traumatic events. Emotional coping was related to an increase in all outcomes; avoidant coping was related to more somatic complaints; problem focused coping was related to a decrease in psychological distress and perceived fatigue. Social support from colleagues and supervisor (head nurse) was found to have a protective effect on the occurrence of PTSD symptoms.

Conclusion: Emergency Nurses are especially vulnerable to post-traumatic stress reactions due to repetitive exposure to work related traumatic incidents. This not only personally affects the nurses, but can also impact quality of care. Hospital management should act on the findings of this study and invest in supportive, communicative, empathic and anticipatory leadership, and provide time-out facilities, cognitive-behavioral interventions and psychological counseling for Emergency Nurses on demand.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Humans
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Social Support
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Workforce