Just like any other career path, there is a time in many nurses’ lives when they become burnt out. Let’s face it, nursing is constantly changing and the added demands can be difficult to embrace. Not only that, but nurses work long hours. We spend holidays and weekends at the hospital caring for the sick. Nurses get vomited on, urinated on and sometimes PEG tube secretions forcefully splash out onto our uniforms. At times, our patients even verbally and sometimes physically assault us. I’ve personally been smacked by a dementia patient and have had more patients than I can count scream profanities at me in drunken or drug-induced stupors. After hearing all that, it should be unthinkable for any cynic to argue that nursing burn out isn’t real. Unfortunately, these cynics exist and may say things such as, “You knew what you were getting into” or “You get paid well enough to handle this.” For now, let’s focus on something more positive than our cynics: What can we do to deal with the stress of the job and not get burnt out?
Don’t Forget About You
I’m probably going to sound like Dr. Phil, but you have to take care of yourself. The nature of many nurses is to care for others, and sadly, sometimes we don’t do such a good job taking care of ourselves. So, for starters, don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings. This can be difficult for many nurses because not everyone outside of nursing understands what we go through or our need to vent. Many of my friends can’t handle hearing about my days at work. The mention of any bodily fluid makes their stomachs churn. I’ve literally had friends and family say to me “please stop talking about that” when elaborating on my day. That is a hard pill to swallow and makes it easy to just bottle up feelings. Unfortunately, bottling up feelings can lead to becoming completely jaded or exploding. My advice is to find one or two close friends or family members who get can stomach hearing about your day and offer a compassionate, safe place for you to unload. I fortunately have a cousin and boyfriend who are both nurses and just “get me.” To Kathy and David, I can’t thank you enough.
Take Time to Exercise
Next, find a form of physical activity that works for you. Exerting yourself in the gym, on the yoga mat or going for a run can release endorphins that make you feel good. It also gives you time to work out your feelings on your own and let them go. I’ve started swimming before work, and it leaves me feeling relaxed and ready to conquer the world prior to entering the chaos of the ER.
Take Time to Travel
Take a vacation. My first year as a nurse I went on four vacations. Even though two of those trips were merely long weekends, they made a difference for me. Stepping away from your job and just relaxing, whether it’s on the beach, exploring a new city or hiking can help you to regroup and refresh.
Don’t Turn to Substance Abuse
I can’t say this enough. Don’t turn to mind-altering substances to deal with stress. Sure, I have a glass of wine with girlfriends to let loose from time to time, but I don’t drink the entire bottle or indulge in other substances. According to an article by Kathy Rivers, it’s believed that 10 to 20 percent of those in the nursing profession suffer from substance abuse. Those who turn to substances only make matters worse. If you feel this is you, it might be time to ask for help or find a support group or therapist. Substance abuse can be a heartbreaking downward spiral for not only the nurse but loved ones as well. You can lose your job and your license. Don’t let it get to this point. There is help out there. Just ask. Many states have programs and support groups for healthcare workers suffering from addiction.
Know When to Say “No”
Nurses don’t always put their own needs first. They are often expected to be heroes, lifesavers and extreme mulit-taskers. My first year as I nurse I worked more 16-hour shifts back to back than was probably safe. I was exhausted. I’d go from midnight shifts, to days, to evenings. I worked any and every shift and sometimes on as a little as three or four hours of sleep. Older nurses would say, “You’re young. You can handle it.” I thought I had something to prove, so I rarely said no when my boss asked me to stay over or pick up a shift. After a while I found this not to be so healthy and started to be resentful of my employer. I cannot tell you how important it is to know when and how to say “no.” Don’t be afraid to say I only want to work x amount of hours. It’s the manager’s job to juggle staffing, not yours.
Switch Up Your Career Path
Finally, if you are burned out to the point of no return it may be time to think of a new job. There’s no shame in this. What’s most important is realizing when it is time to move on. Don’t be that nurse who is gruff with his/her patients or constantly complains at work. While I was a nursing student, I worked at a local hospital as a nursing assistant. A classmate also worked on the same unit as me as a nursing assistant. One of us always got stuck with this burnt out nurse who always talked about her patients. Even worse, she was one of those nurses who believed in the notion of “eating your young.” One day my classmate, who had sort of a chip on his shoulder, said something along the lines of “why don’t you go sell shoes online.” While I don’t recommend any nursing student ever say that to nurse, I do feel it has served as a motto for me. I don’t ever want to become an unhappy nurse who others don’t want to be around. The unique element about nursing, not always present in other careers, is that when you become burnt out you don’t have to find another career. Nursing offers so many different avenues. From case management to education to research to the multitude of specialty fields, the possibilities are endless. Simply changing from a medical surgical unit to case management may be all it takes to reignite one’s passion for nursing.
Overall, the daily demands of being a nurse can be exhausting and naturally take a toll, as I’m sure is true of other professions. It is so incredibly important to be cognizant of your feelings and your needs and to take care of yourself. After all, how can one fully take care of the needs of others if not first taking care of their own mental and physical health?
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