Nurses are caring individuals, which is why many are naturally drawn to the profession. Although the work is rewarding, nurses often face stressful workdays, long hours and unpredictable schedules.
With the coronavirus pandemic, nurses worldwide have been responding to stressful and difficult situations for months with no respite. While this work is heroic, meaningful and necessary, self-care for nurses is more important to avoid burnout.
In this article, we’ll discuss common causes of nurse burnout and offer guidance on prioritizing self-care for nurses.
What Is Self-Care?
According to the World Health Organization, "self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health and prevent and deal with illness."
Self-care is the act of caring for one’s self in a holistic, intentional and important way. It means making sure your needs are being met intellectually, emotionally, physically, relationally and spiritually.
Sometimes the focus on “self” causes self-care to be misinterpreted as a selfish or egotistical endeavor. Shouldn’t I care more about the other people in my life? And as a nurse, shouldn’t I be focused first and foremost on my patients?
While these concerns stem from a good place, self-care for nurses is not selfish. Rather, it is self-preservation and allows you to have more energy for others, both at work and in your personal life.
What Kind of Stressors Are Common for Nurses?
Prioritizing self-care is difficult when you work in an ever-evolving, fast-paced environment. It’s especially challenging when you’re expected to consistently work at your peak performance for long periods of time.
Everyday job-related stressors in nursing include:
Ambiguity in role expectations
Minimal role support
Challenging management situations
Nurses also endure emotionally and psychologically tolling situations that may include witnessing suffering and death of patients and being around loved ones who are mourning.
Instances of not knowing how to help patients afflicted with “biopsychosocial problems” ranked highly in a study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing as a contributing stressor nurses face.
Without periods of rest or recharge, nurses risk developing chronic stress. Over time, it can lead to other issues such as depression, premature aging and decreased immune system functioning.
This is why adopting practices that offer self-care for nurses is crucial.
What Is Burnout and What Can Cause It?
A lack of self-care for nurses increases the chances of burnout, and burnout has become an even greater risk amid the coronavirus pandemic. Nurses are working longer hours, risking their health by exposing themselves to patients infected with the virus and dealing with mass suffering and fear.
With that said, it’s important to understand what burnout is. The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
Generally, five factors are highly associated with job burnout:
Lack of communication and support from a manager
Unreasonable time pressure
Lack of role clarity
Unfair treatment at work
The causes of nurse burnout are similar. Nurses who left or considered leaving their job because of burnout reported a stressful work environment and inadequate staffing. That’s according to an analysis of the 2018 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses.
Burnout is tied to occupational stress but can also affect the lives of nurses outside of the workplace. It can lead to chronic physical pain, depression and anxiety, boredom, lack of interest in work and overall diminished performance.
What Are Some Examples of Self-care for Nurses?
There are several practices offering self-care for nurses that can mitigate burnout.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation has become a popular tool for managing stress and fostering health. It entails being “mindful” of your surroundings, feelings and thoughts.
You can practice mindfulness by sitting in a quiet, comfortable place and focusing on your breathing, external surroundings and emotional energy. Just 10-20 minutes a day has been proven to reduce stress, making it a great practice for nurses.
According to the Mayo Clinic, mindfulness meditation can have the following benefits:
Greater focus on the present
Reduced negative emotions caused by stress and anxiety
Increased patience and creativity
Deep breathing is an effective way to sneak in self-care during shifts.
The body’s stress response helps us confront and avoid danger. But chronic stress is detrimental. It can cause fatigue, digestive problems, premature aging and much more.
Breathing exercises counteract stress by slowing your body and heart rate and “disengaging you from distracting thoughts and sensations.”
Start by taking a deep breath through your nose. Hold it for a few seconds and then release the breath through your mouth. Repeat these steps for a few minutes.
Deep breathing is a stress-relief tool that you can take anywhere. Try it during your next work shift between patients or before you complete paperwork. You can also practice it during your daily commute.
Participate in Physical Activity
Exercise is another effective practice of self-care for nurses. It keeps you physically healthy, extends your lifespan and boosts your energy. It also helps maintain mental health.
When we exercise, our bodies produce endorphins. Endorphins are natural painkillers and help promote sleep. They can also elevate your mood and give you more confidence.
Exercise is most effective when done regularly. It doesn’t have to be intense. Participating in moderate exercise for just 30 minutes a day will offer benefits. Try riding a stationary bike during a television show or taking a short walk after dinner.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Getting uninterrupted sleep—and enough of it— is essential for promoting physical health, mental clarity and positive mood. Setting aside eight hours each night is one way to practice self-care for nurses.
Most nurses sleep about an hour and a half less than what’s recommended. Sleep deprivation hurts our ability to focus and handle tasks effectively. Without bodily rest, our brains miss out on recharge time and are poorly equipped for the next day. Not only does this impact our day-to-day performance, but it takes a toll on our long-term health and cognition.
The quality of your sleep is also essential. Prepare yourself for a solid night’s rest by limiting screen time and the consumption of alcohol or caffeine before bedtime. Make sure your sleep environment is optimal, too. A dark room with a comfortable mattress and pillows can make all the difference.
Schedule Leisure and Recreation
Scheduling leisure and recreation during your week is an effective and enjoyable way to practice self-care.
Participation in these activities has been linked to:
Better work performance
Improved physical health
One way to guarantee you're setting time aside for leisure and recreation is to join a scheduled activity, like a book club. This isn't always possible if you have inconsistent and shifting work schedules. That’s all right. The key is to set aside time, even if only a little, to do something you enjoy in a way that works with your busy schedule.
Take More Breaks
As a nurse, it’s difficult to take care of other responsibilities after a 12-hour shift. You may prefer catching up on errands and housework on your days off. Even though these tasks are important, try to find a balance. Without unplugging once in a while, you might feel like you’re always working.
Taking breaks is another way to prioritize self-care for nurses. After returning from the grocery store, sit down and unwind to a podcast for 20 minutes. Take a brisk walk around the block after you’ve finished paying some bills. You can also write your thoughts down in a journal before starting your day.
Short, intentional pauses can help you avoid burnout. They have other benefits, too, including improved memory, mood and overall health.
When you’re at work, breaks are especially important. If possible, take a few minutes to step outside and breathe fresh air so that you can return to your shift recharged. Breaks will also help you stay sharp and do your best as a nurse.
Connect with Loved Ones
As social beings, we need to spend time with other people. A lack of connection can make you feel lonely and put you at risk of anxiety, feelings of sadness and more.
Here are some tips for connecting with loved ones—an important practice of self-care for nurses:
Regularly call or video chat family or friends who are not geographically accessible.
Invite a loved one to join you in a shared activity, such as a walk.
Host a regular meal or gathering (even remotely) for friends.
Bond with your family on your days off through board games, movie nights or outdoor activities.
Maintaining connections to friends and family will help you find balance between your personal and professional lives. It will also help your relationships grow and endure.
Seek Professional Help When Needed
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), roughly 20% of Americans each year experience a mental health illness. This means if you’re struggling with depression, loneliness, anxiety or stress, you’re not alone.
Nurses often work in high-stress and difficult environments, so it’s important to recognize how they can negatively affect your mental health.
With that in mind, one form of self-care for nurses is seeking out a counselor or therapist. There are many types of therapy available, and all are geared toward helping you develop better ways to cope with stress.
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