Emotional Exhaustion and Defense Mechanisms in Intensive Therapy Unit Nurses

A Regan, Ruth Howard, Janet Oyebode

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

20 Citations (Scopus)


Contrary to its original conceptualization, research has found that emotional demands do not lead to burnout in nurses. According to psychoanalytic theory, unconscious defense mechanisms may protect nurses from conscious awareness of work-related anxiety. This prevents self-report and may explain research findings. The maturity of defense style influences how anxiety is managed. Immature defenses prevent the conscious processing necessary for resolution of anxiety. Therefore, it is hypothesized that the use of immature defenses will lead to emotional exhaustion. This cross-sectional study used questionnaires to explore the defense mechanisms of 87 Intensive Therapy Unit nurses. Although the sample endorsed a predominantly mature defense style, the use of immature defenses predicted emotional exhaustion. Also, lower levels of reported stress associated with emotional demands predicted emotional exhaustion. Although this strongly implies the mediating role of immature defense mechanisms, the results were not statistically significant.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)330-336
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Nervous and Mental Disease
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2009


  • Burnout
  • psychoanalytic theory
  • emotional exhaustion
  • intensive therapy unit nurses
  • defense mechanisms


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