Our Plea to Nurses: Relieve Your Stress – and Take Care of Your Health

A nurse with a stethoscope around her neck sits at a table drinking coffee.

As we pointed out when we kicked off our Year of the Nurse campaign, nursing is the largest and fastest growing profession in the U.S. Year after year, nursing is voted the “most trusted” profession in Gallup polls. But we also noted that nurses face dangerous challenges to their health and safety. Substance abuse and mental illness among nurses are growing concerns, which may increase now that nurses all over the world are on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients.

We also know how most nurses think: “It would be selfish for me to take time to rest.” “Others are working around the clock, so should I.” “The needs of survivors are more important than my needs.” If you’re a nurse reading this, you’ve likely said these things to yourself many times, particularly as the pandemic has grown. But remember, we want every nurse who’s practicing now to be able to provide high-quality care after the fight has been won. That means making the commitment to take care of yourself now.

It’s Time for Nurses to Be Selfish

The novel coronavirus has placed nurses and their clinical colleagues in physical and emotional situations they never could have imagined – and that those outside the medical profession find inconceivable. Even so, nurses must figure out ways to prevent burnout in both the short and long term.   

“Self care for healthcare workers can be complex and challenging, given that they may prioritize the needs of others over their own needs,” notes Pam Campbell, R.N., Market Insights Specialist for PointClickCare. “So each nurse’s self care strategy should be multi-faceted and phased properly to support her or his sense of control and contribution, and not include the feeling of unrealistic responsibility for the lives of patients.” Pam recommends the Calm app for meditation prompts and breathing exercises, things anyone can do while on (or off) the job. We have some other behavior tips for nurses to follow during their shifts, especially during the pandemic:

  • self-monitor and pace
  • check in regularly with colleagues, family, and friends
  • work in partnerships or in teams
  • take brief relaxation/stress management breaks
  • consult regularly with peers and supervisors
  • take time-outs for basic bodily care and refreshment
  • seek accurate information and mentoring to help with decision-making
  • try to maintain helpful self-talk, avoiding overgeneralized fears
  • focus efforts on what’s within your power
  • accept situations you cannot change
  • foster a spirit of fortitude, patience, tolerance, and hope

Long-term Care Stress is Both the Same and Different

Nurses in long-term care facilities are fighting the same deadly disease as those in hospital ERs and ICUs. They wear PPE whenever they’re at work, and their routines have been turned upside down. With their residents in isolation, LTC nurses are now providing emotional support formerly offered by family members. All of our Nurses of the Month have admitted that they think of their residents as family, supporting them through the highs and lows of chronic illness or rehabilitative programs. Imagine the stress these nurses now feel, as they watch COVID-19 attack this most vulnerable population.

Besides all the “dos” outlined above, Pam says there are specific behaviors that nurses should try to avoid:

  • working alone too long without checking in with colleagues
  • working “around the clock” with few breaks
  • feeling that they are not doing enough
  • excessive intake of sweets and caffeine
  • engaging in self-talk and attitudinal obstacles to self-care

Because nurses are strongly service-oriented, they may hesitate to request support for dealing with stress. Now more than ever, employers should be proactive in encouraging supportive care in an atmosphere free of stigma, coercion, and fear of negative consequences.

Pam has some very direct advice for nurses: “If you’re struggling with something you can’t seem to shake, talk to someone. Seek help. I believe PTSD will be a real issue after this pandemic, especially for those who have been in COVID-19 hotspots. The sooner you can begin to process and learn effective strategies, the better.”  

Bust That Stress, For the Long Term

Following Florence Nightingale’s example, nursing has always been one of the most selfless professions. Many nurses have left school early or come out of retirement to fight the battle against COVID-19, but they also should not lose themselves in the stress. As Pam says, “Make time for those people who help fill your emotional tank. If you can’t be with them in person, video chat, talk on the phone, even message them. It’s so important to stay connected to the things and people that make you, you. Remember, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’.”

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