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Caring for the Caretaker: A Guide to Self Care as a Nurse

Since you work in a service profession, the default is to care for others before yourself. However, your self care is imperative to survive the fluctuations of your job and cultivate that work-life balance. Everyday you bear the heat in COVID testing lines outside, put on your full gear with the N-95 ready to be a force to be reckoned with against the pandemic, plaster on a smile when there is uncertainty in this country, and continually put your patients first. On behalf of GRW, we would like to say thank you for your service to this country. We provide many ways to navigate self care specific to the nursing profession and here they are:

  • Describing the hardships behind the mask that have been occurring for nurses
  • Tips on how to navigate nurse burnout
  • Ways to sustain yourself in the future by making self-care a lifestyle
There is a lot that happens beyond the mask. This nurse, in her new capacity as a COVID tester, has a slew of things she is working through on and off the job.
Nurses are America’s vanguard at this moment. They are in close contact with patients testing for the coronavirus and they are expected to put away all their feelings, inhibitions, and anxieties away and cater to patients. This is a lot of work. Image courtesy of Vox.

Behind the Mask

Psychological Effects of the Pandemic

When you take off your N-95, there are marks on your face for wearing masks for long hours. Along with these physical effects, there are lots of emotions that are hidden by the mask and uniform. When you peel back those layers you are confronted with real feelings and vulnerability. 

It is crucial to  take care of yourself. Nurses often see the best and worst of people, society, and health care. There are many traumatic events that nurses witness like patients dying, belligerent family members, harassment by people, and the miscellaneous occurrences in the workplace. Investigate your feelings on a deeper level by asking yourself why you are feeling down or frustrated because it may be from radically empathizing with a patient. Is the source of your worry and frustration the medical administration’s finicky rules and supporting positions displaying favoritism? (Drama in the workplace for nurses puts a new meaning to the TLC song “No Scrubs”). Did you bring in your feelings from what happened in your private life before you put on your scrubs? Get to the heart of what is going on behind the mask and lean into actionable steps to make your job and life more favorable. 

Nurse burnout is surprisingly easy to come by. The trick is managing it before you are on the floor and stressed like this nurse.
Approximately 50% of nurses are burned out. Oftentimes this service profession is so much about giving and caring for that it is easy to forget about taking care of your needs and taking breaks. Image courtesy of Nurse.

Navigating Nurse Burnout

Tips for Self Preservation

There are many things nurses can do to help them with their burnout. We encourage you to seek help from hotlines to talk to a mental health professional, have therapy appointments, and get advice from seasoned nurses. 

Christine Civello, RN and BSN, decided to change from ICU nursing to becoming a school nurse when she took cues from how she felt about work. While getting a new job is not everyone’s reality or desire, she provides amazing insight about how she navigates feelings of exhaustion at work. Her 20 years of experience as a critical care nurse gives her grounding in her practice that is applicable to all nurses. There are many tips and experiences that she shares that may help you navigate nurse burnout.

She discusses the rewards of nursing and how sometimes the good days outweigh the bad. Sometimes looking at the cup as half full or making a change of job that is right for you is the answer. For instance, she says, “ ICU nursing isn’t a job you can love every single day. Or night, since that’s mostly what I worked. There were occasionally nights where I was overwhelmed and exhausted, where I didn’t want to go back to the same heartbreaking patient, or to one who had been particularly nasty, or if I knew I’d be so busy I’d be lucky to eat dinner. Then there’d be great nights. My patient was really sick when I got there, but by morning they were a bit better.” One thing that helps Civello and another nurse in Syracuse, Dana Baker, FNP, is talking it out. Debriefing is one of the best ways to institute self care. There is a lot of community within the nursing field. Once you tap into that, it gives you strength in solidarity.

This is such a great way to practice self care because it allows you to release bottled up feelings to people who can relate. Civello says, “My best self-care tip is to talk about nursing, the good the bad and the ugly, with a few trusted friends. (Please maintain everyone’s privacy while you’re venting, don’t use names, don’t talk in public, especially at work). I had nurse friends, in fact I still have nurse friends, who I called when the night was really awful. I talked to one my nurse friends, and their shared experiences, honesty, and understanding would help to lift the weight of whatever I shared. The source of strength was the amazing people I worked with. I was so blessed to have really smart and caring people, many of whom I still call friends. They helped me when I needed it, whether it was physical help to reposition a patient, letting me troubleshoot out loud, or lending an honest, empathetic ear when my patient’s story was too sad.” Additionally, the crazy stories that Civello calls the good, bad, and the ugly brings people together.

Let’s face it being a nurse is hard work. You go through the trials with others when you are closely connected to your patients and their families, and you are expected to be on 24/7. Especially for introverted types or anyone for that matter, this can be exhausting. Make sure that you cultivate a lifestyle of self care so that no matter what happens in life, you are taking care of your mental health. Here are some other helpful self care tips that nurses can employ:

  • Find humor in things when you can to keep things light
  • Make sure to use the bathroom, eat, drink, etc. For you to be an effective caretaker and provider for your patients, you must make sure that you will not pass out during the night, get hurt, or sick
  • Spend time with your family in your free time to take your mind off strenuous work conditions
  • Find a therapist that works for you. It is great to talk to someone who will just listen and help you through some work traumas (this can be when a patient dies, problems with the administration, and rude family members.)
  • Remind yourself of your why. Nursing is a service profession. Therefore, make sure that you remember that you are here to help people and make an impact in people’s lives. This can often motivate you and help you press past your burnouts with the job.
  • Engage in your spiritual practices. Lean into the things that give you strength. This may look like meditation, praying, or grounding yourself through mindfulness practices.
Step into your nurse zen by creating a lifestyle of self care as a nurse.
Nurses rock! After you give out so much of your time and energy, make sure to replenish it by making self-care part of your lifestyle. Image courtesy of University of Texas Arlington.

Prepare for the Future

Essential Work = Essential Self Care

Overall, the delineation of who is and is not “essential” divides our country in stratifications of at-risk populations, social class, medical professions, and different races. Nurses are and always will be essential to their communities and patients that they serve. Since the country is dependent on you, it is vital that you make self-care an essential component of your life. With your health provider or by yourself, draft a list of things to add into your routine to practice self-care. That may even look like adding spa dates, therapy sessions, date nights, kid’s baseball games, cooking, sleep (especially catch those zzz’s), or investing in comfortable shoes as you walk the halls at work. Write the vision of self care and a healthy balance for yourself and make it plain.