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We’ve all heard the phrase, “Physician, heal thyself.”
In the field of nursing, it goes like this, “Nurse, take care of yourself!”
For an occupation that is synonymous with taking care of others, nurses are at risk for doing a poor job of taking care of themselves, says Christy Davidson, DNP, interim dean of Capella University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, who has spent 23 years working as a nurse.
“As amazing as nurses are at caring for others, too often they engage in some unhealthy behaviors,” she says. “Myself included, nurses are sometimes just not taking care of themselves physically, emotionally, or spiritually. This can take the form of poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and little to no aerobic exercise. For nurses to be at their best in taking care of patients, they need to be at their best in taking care of themselves.”
Ask any nurse, and they will likely tell you the reason why so many nurses are engaging in unhealthy behaviors is obvious. Stress.
“Nursing is enormously rewarding, but also enormously stressful,” Davidson says. “I believe that is what drives unhealthy behavior. Nurses typically work very long hours in units that are often understaffed. And nursing demands confronting life-and-death situations on a daily basis. Needless to say, that is incredibly stressful. People’s lives depend on nurses being at their best.”
So what steps can nurses take to be at their best? Davidson offers the following advice for nurses to begin treating themselves with the same high level of care that they provide to their patients.
It all starts with good, balanced nutrition, Davidson says. Easier said than done of course, but not impossible. “Good nutrition is huge,” she says. “That has to be a priority. For nurses, limiting sugar and caffeine is critical.”
But it goes beyond healthy meal planning, Davidson says. Health care organizations also play a critical role in nurturing an environment where healthy eating is a priority—and possible. She explains that too many health care workers don’t have healthy food options during night shifts, so they bring in fast food or go without. Not only do nurses need to have healthy food available, but they need the dedicated time to eat it.
“Nurses are notorious for not taking a break and not eating during a shift,” she says. “This is easily fixed when health care organizations make it a priority that their nurses fully utilize much-needed breaks.”
Even when you commit to healthy eating, to truly benefit from it, a body must move. Of course, nurses are constantly moving on the job, but often it is the type of movement and heavy lifting that can actually place a person at risk if not in shape. Workplace activity needs to be paired with non-work aerobic exercise, including stretching and strength training that restores the body to a healthy balance.
“If you are not in good physical shape, it can be dangerous doing the type of physical duties nurses have to do every day on the job,” Davidson says, adding that nurses run the risk of suffering significant workplace injuries when they are not in good physical shape.
Spend any time watching a nurse make his or her rounds and it’s quickly apparent how exhausting the work can be, which is why getting adequate and truly restful sleep is so important. Davidson says just 30 additional minutes of quality sleep each day can make a huge difference in mental clarity and stamina. She encourages nurses to create an environment and daily routines that will enable them to get the sleep they need.
Terry Karjalainen, lead faculty for the Master of Health Administration program at Capella, reinforces the need for health care organizations to step up to their responsibility to help ensure nurses can practice self-care.
“Health care organizations have a duty to walk the talk when it comes to keeping nurses healthy,” she says. “It’s a corporate responsibility that every nurse has the appropriate hours off from work to get the rest he or she needs. They need to put their financial resources toward adequate staffing of nurses so that can happen.”
“One often hears the accolades,” Davidson says. “Nurses are heroes. They are incredibly tough. They get the job done no matter what.” All of that is true, but it can also create a false expectation that nurses are invulnerable. A nurse who raises his or her hand and says they are hurting might be perceived as weak. Nothing could be further from the truth, Davidson says.
“Transparency and awareness about self-care for nurses is so very important,” she says. “We need to be able to talk about stresses on the job and what healthy behaviors look like. It can’t be a dirty secret. Those who try to manage stress on their own are the least successful. Organizations need to let their staff know that a healthy workplace culture is a priority. It needs to be embraced by leadership and be part of the organizational DNA.”
In conclusion, Davidson adds, “None of this is impossible and much of it is just common sense. We simply need to make it a priority. The concept of nurses as martyrs is ultimately self-destructive. Nurses need to make taking care of themselves as much of a priority as taking care of their patients. Everyone will be better off when they do.”