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Crit Care Med. 2000 Sep;28(9):3281-8.

Experience and endocrine stress responses in neonatal and pediatric critical care nurses and physicians.

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Department of Neonatology and Pediatric Intensive Care, University Children's Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland.



Critical care is a working environment with frequent exposure to stressful events. High levels of psychological stress have been associated with increased prevalence of burnout. Psychological distress acts as a potent trigger of cortisol secretions. We attempted to objectify endocrine stress reactivity.


Observational cohort study during two 12-day periods in successive years.


A tertiary multidisciplinary neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit (33 beds).


One hundred and twelve nurses and 27 physicians (94% accrual rate).


Cortisol determined from salivary samples collected every 2 hrs and after stressful events. Participants recorded the subjective perception of stress with every sample. Endocrine reactions were defined as transient surges in cortisol of >50% and 2.5 nmol/L over the baseline.


During 7,145 working hours, we observed 474 (12.5%) endocrine reactions from 3,781 samples. The mean cortisol increase amounted to 10.6 nmol/L (219%). The mean occurrence rate of endocrine reactions per subject and sample was 0.159 (range, 0-0.43). Although the mean raw cortisol levels were lower in experienced team members (>3 yrs of intensive care vs. <3 yrs, 4.1 vs. 4.95 nmol/L, p < .001), professional experience failed to attenuate the frequency and magnitude of endocrine reactions, except for the subgroup of nurses and physicians with >8 yrs of intensive care experience. A high proportion (71.3%) of endocrine reactions occurred without conscious perception of stress. Unawareness of stress was higher in intensive care nurses (75.1%) than in intermediate care nurses (51.8%, p < .01).


Stress-related cortisol surges occur frequently in neonatal and pediatric critical care staff. Cortisol increases are independent of subjective stress perception. Professional experience does not abate the endocrine stress reactivity.

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