So often when the issue of burnout among nurses comes up, the solutions offered center around self-care.
Think: yoga, eating more kale, going for a long run.
Those are all well-intended and helpful coping mechanisms, but they represent only part of the solution, says Bridget Roberts, DNP, RN, CNE, chair of doctoral nursing and interim associate dean for the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Capella University.
“Self-care strategies are important, but they are not enough to battle nurse burnout,” Roberts says. “We have to remember that we are social beings. We need each other to be resilient. We can’t do it all on our own. The solution to burnout in nursing needs to be rooted in our relationships with one another.”
“The consequences of burnout among nurses go beyond turnover to potentially jeopardizing patient safety,” Roberts says. “Experience goes a long way in nursing. When nurses leave the profession, they take that experience with them, and that can put patients at risk. With the current demand for nurses we are facing, we can’t afford to lose any more to burnout.”
Roberts adds that no nurse is immune to the threat of burnout – herself included. She recalls being a charge nurse on a night shift working 12 hours at a time while going back to school to earn a master’s degree, all while working as a part-time clinical instructor.
“I was managing all of those responsibilities until my dad became ill and had to undergo a major surgery,” Roberts recalls. “If it hadn’t been for my peers and those caring and compassionate relationships I had built, I’m not sure if I could have made it through that time without burning out. Not only did I have people to talk to, but I also had a support team to help ease the burden by covering shifts or taking notes when classes were missed. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the biggest impact.”
Roberts provides the following advice for nurses to help build the support systems they need.
Find your friends early – and never stop.
It starts in nursing school. The inherent stress of nursing begins to creep in during the college years for most nurses. On the bright side, those same years also present the perfect opportunity to begin forming the life-long relationships that can help nurses get through the toughest of times.
“Nurses, especially young nurses who are full of idealism and a determination to change the world, often underestimate how critical peer support systems will be in helping them to be resilient,” Roberts says. “To get through it all, start forming your support network early. And never stop. Always be looking for a friend colleague who gets it and can be that much-needed shoulder to lean on when needed. I don’t care what your age is, you always need your friends in this profession.”
Don’t try to be a superhero.
Few professions are as heroic as nursing. The problem is, too many nurses try in vain to live up to that reputation. For fear of disappointing their peers, the profession, and ultimately themselves, they convince themselves that they can never show any weakness. They can never be vulnerable. They can never show they are hurting or need help.
“It is so true that many nurses are hesitant to ask for help when they need it because they have this superhero mentality,” Roberts says. “That is so sad and ultimately harmful. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, weak in asking for help or sharing that you are overwhelmed. No human being, not even a nurse, can be everything to everyone at all times. Nurses need to have the self-awareness and humility to raise their hand and say, ‘I need help.’ You need a support system for those moments.”
Be the peer you want for yourself.
Roberts describes the support systems that nurses build among themselves as constantly cycling. One day a nurse may be in crisis and craving a sympathetic ear; the next they are the one doing the listening and encouraging a colleague to keep at it another day. She argues that there is no such thing as that mythical ultra-experienced nurse who has it all figured out and is the shoulder to lean on for everyone else. Therefore, all nurses need to practice being that caring, empathetic colleague that they themselves will inevitably need.
“Truly, it’s a professional responsibility to make yourself available to other nurses as a support system,” Roberts says. “You need to make it known that you are available to talk, to commiserate, to cry, whatever. You can be there for the nurse colleague who is struggling with the responsibilities and inherent stress of the role compounded with other responsibilities, such as managing a family, taking care of an ill parent or family member, or returning to school to advance your degree. Other nurses need to know they can come to you and lean on you when needed. And you also need to recognize that tomorrow that nurse may be you.”
Don’t resign yourself to isolation.
For nurses who work remotely, such as tele-health nurses or online nurse educators, there is the added complication of being physically separated from peers. Roberts stresses that it is incumbent on those nurses to use technology to fight that feeling of isolation.
“If you are a nurse working from home or a remote location, you can feel like you are out there on an island, and I know how this feels from my own personal experience,” Roberts says. “For those nurses, it’s even more important to forge peer relationships. It takes more effort, but it can be done. You can access social media groups dedicated to nurses or real-time video chats with friends in the profession. The point is that remote nurses should not feel they are doomed to isolation. In fact, with some effort, I have been able to forge some of my best support systems virtually.”
Finally, Roberts encourages nurses to let the incalculable impact they have on their patients fuel their resilience when times get tough. When nurses do that — and remind themselves in a very tangible way of why they do what they do — it can recharge the most burned out of souls.
“Really feel and appreciate those words of gratitude, the tears of joy, and the appreciation of your patients,” Roberts advises. “Nurses make such an incredible impact on their patients’ lives every day. Feel that. Feel pride in it. It can do wonders to inspire nurses to keep doing what they do so well.”
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As a wife, mom, and FlexPath student, Nacole knows what it’s like to have a full plate. Hear what Nacole has to say about balancing it all and check out @NurseNacole, a collection of online nursing resources.