AIM: The study investigated the three symptoms of burnout among hospital nurses and examined the buffering effects of optimism and proactive coping in relation to burnout. BACKGROUND: Nursing is a profession that can easily lead to burnout. Burnout has been one of the most investigated work outcomes in current research. Previous research has largely ignored the positive influence of individuals on job outcomes and has not tested a constructive framework that might facilitate interventions to prevent burnout. METHOD: A cross-sectional survey of 314 staff nurses in general hospitals in Taiwan. Participants completed a set of questionnaires with demographic information. FINDING: The findings suggested that higher levels of proactive coping behaviours and optimism were associated with lower levels of burnout. Optimism was found to have the strongest relationship with the decreased personal accomplishment of burnout. CONCLUSION: The findings of this study confirmed the importance of optimism and proactive coping in prevention of symptoms of burnout. IMPLICATIONS FOR NURSING MANAGEMENT: The results of this study provided important recommendations regarding stress management interventions for health-care managers, nurses, psychologists and human resource staff in the reduction of burnout to promote mental health in an organisation.