6 strategies to manage the emotional intensity of being a nurse

December 3, 2019

A career in nursing has always been as stressful as it is rewarding.

Much has been written about the importance of self-care to help nurses deal with the stresses of the job. As important and helpful as it is to exercise, eat right, and get enough rest, nurses and the profession as a whole can do more to better manage the emotional intensity of being a nurse.

“Nurse burnout is a complex and difficult topic to solve, but there are things we can do to make a difference,” says Marylee Bressie, DNP, RN, CCNS, CCRN-K, CEN, core faculty in the Capella University graduate nursing program.

Bressie points to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses’ six standards to create a healthy work environment as part of the solution. Below, she explores how each of those standards can be implemented to create workplace environments and team dynamics that can help nurses get through the worst of times.

1. Skilled communication

Many nurses feel the lack of effective communication is at the core of stress. A nurse must be willing and able to talk through when they are hurting, but also be there to listen without judgment when a colleague is in crisis.

“Too often we just talk about the importance of good communication skills, but then we don’t act upon it,” Bressie says. “The problem is we often think we’ve communicated when we haven’t. Communication is ultimately rooted in listening with empathy and compassion. Just knowing you’ve been heard and someone else feels your pain can do an enormous amount to help a fellow nurse deal with a stressful situation.”

2. True collaboration
Collaboration is a buzzword you hear in every field. But what does it really mean? What is true collaboration? According to Bressie, true collaboration is not simply letting everyone have a say and share an opinion. Rather, it is about deeply listening and really considering what those other voices have to say. Where are they coming from? What are they feeling? How should I react in a way that demonstrates real camaraderie and support?

“When you have true collaboration, it’s not a contest to get your voice out there first or loudest,” Bressie says. “You don’t have to be the star. You don’t want to be. You want everyone to feel good about what you are working toward together, and more importantly, you want everyone to be honest and truthful, even when they are hurting. Only then does collaboration show its worth.”

3. Effective decision making
Many nurses succumb to stress when they don’t feel like they are in control. Too often nurses don’t feel empowered to participate in decisions regarding how, when, and where they work. That sense of powerlessness can fester until a nurse believes there is nowhere left to turn.

“This solution really falls on the nurse leader and requires that decisions be well-informed and communicated to everyone affected,” Bressie says. “Every nurse wants to feel they have a say, or at least be heard on decisions that will affect them. Now that doesn’t mean you give everyone everything they want, but you need to hear and genuinely consider others’ viewpoints. They still might not love the decision, but at least it wasn’t made in a vacuum. People appreciate the closing of the communication loop.”

4. Appropriate staffing
This solution can seem rather obvious at first glance. In essence, when there are enough nurses on staff to do the work required, the team and the individuals will feel less stress and be happier. Sure, that’s true … if possible. It’s not so easy to just hire more nurses. Budget and available talent may be scarce. Bressie adds that appropriate staffing is not just the number of nurse bodies on the floor, it’s also about being efficient with the people you have. In other words, do the nurses have the right equipment to do the job? Are the resources they need readily available when they need them? Are they empowered to make decisions that will keep things moving?

“Ensuring nurses can do their jobs without a lot of headaches, time delays, and hassles can work wonders in making people feel there is appropriate staffing to do the job,” Bressie says. “If you give nurses what they need to do their work, they can get the job done much more effectively and without the unneeded overhead. That can be a lot less expensive than hiring a bunch of new nurses.”

5. Meaningful recognition
Sometimes, the best stress reducer can just be hearing the words, “You’re doing a great job and making a real difference.” Being reminded that everything you are going through is appreciated and worth it can give a nurse the strength to make it through a difficult day.

“When it comes to recognition, money is nice, but it is not everything,” Bressie says. “No surprise, people are motivated by very different things. Some people want a plaque, some people want an article in an employee newsletter, and others simply want a pat on the back. When it comes down to it, every nurse wants to be recognized for making a difference. The good news is this is very easy to do. It can come from supervisor to staff, but also from peer to peer. The point is that no nurse, particularly a nurse leader, should miss an opportunity to recognize another nurse when it is deserved. Formal awards are great, but it is the small moments of recognition that can be the most meaningful.”

6. Authentic leadership
Finally, when you work for a nurse leader who demonstrates authentic leadership, that in itself can create the type of healthy, transparent work environment that can reduce stress and feelings of helplessness. Authentic leaders provide guidance and ensure that nurses have what they need to do the job. They are also proactive in asking, “What can I do to help you? How are you doing? How are you feeling?” Authentic leadership is rooted in compassion. That goes a long way.

“The first rule of leadership is: if you have a highly competent team, don’t micromanage them,” Bressie says. “Yes, there will always be times when orders need to be given quickly and immediately acted upon, but there is typically a time to follow up and explain why a decision was made and how the team’s input was considered. It comes back to the first point about communication. Leaders who are transparent and embrace two-way communication will have happier, more productive nurses on staff.”

Learn more about the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses’ six standards to create a healthy work environment. Take your career to the next level with an online degree in nursing from Capella University.

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