Burnout in nursing: a theoretical review

Hum Resour Health. 2020 Jun 5;18(1):41. doi: 10.1186/s12960-020-00469-9.


Background: Workforce studies often identify burnout as a nursing 'outcome'. Yet, burnout itself-what constitutes it, what factors contribute to its development, and what the wider consequences are for individuals, organisations, or their patients-is rarely made explicit. We aimed to provide a comprehensive summary of research that examines theorised relationships between burnout and other variables, in order to determine what is known (and not known) about the causes and consequences of burnout in nursing, and how this relates to theories of burnout.

Methods: We searched MEDLINE, CINAHL, and PsycINFO. We included quantitative primary empirical studies (published in English) which examined associations between burnout and work-related factors in the nursing workforce.

Results: Ninety-one papers were identified. The majority (n = 87) were cross-sectional studies; 39 studies used all three subscales of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) Scale to measure burnout. As hypothesised by Maslach, we identified high workload, value incongruence, low control over the job, low decision latitude, poor social climate/social support, and low rewards as predictors of burnout. Maslach suggested that turnover, sickness absence, and general health were effects of burnout; however, we identified relationships only with general health and sickness absence. Other factors that were classified as predictors of burnout in the nursing literature were low/inadequate nurse staffing levels, ≥ 12-h shifts, low schedule flexibility, time pressure, high job and psychological demands, low task variety, role conflict, low autonomy, negative nurse-physician relationship, poor supervisor/leader support, poor leadership, negative team relationship, and job insecurity. Among the outcomes of burnout, we found reduced job performance, poor quality of care, poor patient safety, adverse events, patient negative experience, medication errors, infections, patient falls, and intention to leave.

Conclusions: The patterns identified by these studies consistently show that adverse job characteristics-high workload, low staffing levels, long shifts, and low control-are associated with burnout in nursing. The potential consequences for staff and patients are severe. The literature on burnout in nursing partly supports Maslach's theory, but some areas are insufficiently tested, in particular, the association between burnout and turnover, and relationships were found for some MBI dimensions only.

Keywords: Burnout; Job demands; Maslach Burnout Inventory; Nursing; Practice environment.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Burnout, Professional / epidemiology*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Leadership
  • Nurse's Role / psychology
  • Nurses / psychology*
  • Nurses / statistics & numerical data*
  • Patient Safety
  • Personnel Turnover / statistics & numerical data
  • Quality of Health Care
  • Sick Leave / statistics & numerical data
  • Time Factors
  • Workload / psychology
  • Workplace / psychology*