The term “self-care” is a big umbrella that covers a ton of wellness topics, such as life-balance, stress relief, weight management, fitness, relationships, spirituality, and much more. It’s tough to pinpoint just one life arena you’ll want to make changes to in order to become happier and healthier. But it’s possible and may make your self-care journey easier.
Here’s a tip: Start with sleep.
Why Sleep Is So Important
This is probably the number one area where you can improve your health and well-being. Nurses are notorious for not getting enough sound sleep on a regular basis—odd shifts and rotating schedules don’t help the body to regulate rhythms. Fatigue is one thing but it’s worst when a sleep-deprived nurse actually nods off while at the bedside or on the road after a late shift. Obviously, that’s extremely dangerous—for you, your patients, and everyone near you.
Most American adults don’t meet the guidelines for sufficient sleep (seven to eight hours) and many of us consider it a luxury we can’t afford, or try to “bank” shut-eye by sleeping for 5 hours on work nights and 10 on days off. We like to think that getting along on little sleep is a sign of superhero strength and those who prioritize rest are weaklings. None of those beliefs are accurate. Here’s how you can take care of yourself, in spite of our hyperactive society’s mistaken take on rest and sleep.
The Basics of Sleep Hygiene
Chronic sleep deprivation and sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea, can be improved by following good sleep hygiene protocols. Try these tips:
- Cut out caffeine later on in the day. (That includes certain soft drinks and chocolate, as well as coffee and tea.)
- Drink alcohol in moderation, or not at all, because it’s more likely you’ll wake at night after a drink or two.
- Another reason to stop smoking cigarettes: nicotine interferes with sound sleep.
- Finish your last meal of the day a few hours before bedtime so you’re done digesting.
- Don’t do heavy exercise late at night, though gentle stretching or yoga can be a restful entrée to sleep.
Setting the Right Environment for Rest
Digital sights and sounds make it harder to slow down and get ready for bed. Younger nurses, being social media natives, are especially prone to texting, tweeting, Pinteresting, and streaming movies in their bedrooms. Make it a rule to keep your smartphone, iPad, or other devices out of your bed. That way, you won’t be tempted by social media, news, or entertainment right up to the time you turn off the lights. Some nurses even set a digital curfew and power down devices two to three hours before bedtime.
When Your Mind is Too Busy to Turn Off
Some nurses find that the simple act of journaling before bed helps them quiet the worry, anxiety, and fears that may be keeping them awake. Nursing is an emotional occupation and there isn’t always an opportunity to process what happens during the day while on the job. That’s when a notebook and pen by the bed can be a curative. One of the principal researchers in the area of journaling and health is James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin and author of “Writing to Heal.” His studies have shown that expressive writing (journaling) is a simple and effective way to relieve stress while boosting both mental and physical health.
Most registered nurses are familiar with the rights of patients under their care and work hard to alleviate suffering and maintain respect for human dignity. They advocate on behalf of patients, their families, the community, and society as a whole. But many nurses do not know their own legal rights and responsibilities as health care professionals.
Nurses with knowledge of whistle-blower laws, for instance, may be more likely to press administrators to end patient-care abuses or fiscal fraud. Standing up for what’s right is tough in any case, but especially for women and minorities, who make up a majority of the profession. Yet, minority nurses have historically demonstrated heroic activism for community health and social justice, during the civil rights era and the AIDS epidemic, for instance.
Nurses face the same legal issues as many other employees, such as sexual harassment in the workplace. But they also must protect against career-specific liabilities, such as being accused of violating the nurse practice act or similar regulations.
“There are three major concerns for nurses,” according to Gerard Brogan, RN, lead nursing practice representative at California Nurses Association and National Nurses United. “I travel and talk to nurses across the country and union or not, I hear the same things. The first concern is nurse-to-patient ratio, two is violence in workplace, and three is scope of practice.”
This article, then, will focus on legal issues that are unique to nurses.
Nurses across the country have expressed overwhelming concerns regarding these roadblocks to patient care and safety: short staffing on overcrowded units, limited ability to take even short breaks due to scheduling gaps, floating nurses without the proper training for certain departments, and so on.
According to Brogan, California is the only state in the country that has nurse-to-patient ratios. “Massachusetts and Arizona have them for the ICU only,” he says. “Nurses are working in understaffed hospitals, which are dangerous for patients and everyone else. We now have two nurse-to-patient bills in Washington. One is a house bill and one is a senate bill. They would require every hospital to adhere to ratios similar to the California bill.”
Brogan says that he often sees on social media the phrase “nurses should not be political.” But he believes that’s a naïve and possibly dangerous position. “Health care employers are heavily involved in politics, so as an organization and profession we have to also be involved in politics ourselves.”
Other aspects of staffing include how hospital plans are created and implemented allowing direct-care nurses to play a role. “The Oregon Hospital Nurse Staffing Law gives power to the hospital staffing committee,” says David Baca, RN, BSN, an emergency room nurse at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, Oregon.
The law is also a legal measure regarding rest-breaks and specialized staffing on specific units and departments. “The phrase ‘A nurse is a nurse is a nurse is a nurse’ is common, but that kind of thought process needs to go away as it becomes clear that appropriate education and training are needed,” says Baca.
The nurses at his hospital also recently won a new contractual right: break-relief nurses on units, when necessary, to allow nurses to schedule earned breaks and meals. Baca estimates that only 30-40% of nurses at his hospital know about the new staffing laws. “A little more education is needed,” including the hospital and individual nurse’s unit. “Standards and practices in the ER should be something we’re aware of. If not, we should be asking: ‘What does the ENA say about staffing and nurse patient ratios?’”
“When it comes to workplace violence, nurses have been in the top five forever,” says Baca. According to an U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis, 52% of all incidents of workplace violence in 2014 involved workers in the health care and social service industry. “The ER is open to everybody. We serve everyone, including the intoxicated or those with mental issues, so nurses are assaulted. It happens on almost a daily basis.”
“A few years ago, we had a huge problem with psychiatric crisis patients. We couldn’t secure them in appropriate rooms for their own safety and ours. They’d either elope or assault. That’s a huge risk, so the hospital invested a million dollars into ER security for the safety of everybody,” says Baca.
“Most assaults in the ER go unreported. If you regularly see colleagues assaulted, it becomes the norm,” warns Baca. “Maybe we need to prosecute more patients who assault nurses, medics on ambulances, or technicians. There’s a very low prosecution rate and almost no legal ramifications for patients who assault. We need to change the workplace culture that accepts violence.”
In 2014, California enacted a trailblazing law to reduce workplace violence incidents in health care facilities. “Every hospital has to develop a comprehensive workplace violence program to protect the safety of patients and employees,” Brogan explains. “We’re not just interested in working on the welfare of nurses in California or nurses in the union. Our efforts are for nurses across the nation.”
Then there’s the more common, less intense form of violence: bullying…
Brittney Wilson, BSN, RN, a social media influencer also known as The Nerdy Nurse, started blogging as a response to the stress of nurse-on-nurse bullying as a newly graduated floor nurse.
“What I learned from my experience with lateral violence is that in a right-to-work state it is very difficult to make a stand for yourself,” Wilson explains. “I did learn that in order to build a strong case for yourself you should keep notes including dates/times/names of incidences. You should also report incidences as soon as they occur. But if your hospital does not have a union, it is pretty much your word against another employee.”
In Wilson’s case, the nurses who witnessed the bullying weren’t her allies, and neither was management. “My employer didn’t support me and believe me enough to address the work environment, pursuing the issue just made things more difficult for me and lead to me being forced to take a different position and a pay cut until I ultimately left the organization,” she adds.
Though nurses have a right to be treated with dignity, respect, and civility, they sometimes must fight just for an environment that isn’t downright hostile. Wilson advises nurses in that situation to “find new employment and an organization that will support and value them. We are living in an economy where there are more jobs than there are nurses. If you aren’t being treated respectfully, you owe it to yourself to remove yourself from a damaging situation.” That’s just what Wilson did, parlaying her newly accrued digital skills into a well-paying and satisfying career in nurse informatics and technology product development.
It goes without saying, but nurses must themselves also avoid those types of uncivil, hostile, bullying, or intimidating behaviors that show disrespect for patients or colleagues. Otherwise, they put themselves at risk of censure for trampling the rights of others.
Scope of Practice
“There are fifty states and 50 different nurse practice acts,” says Brogan. “Hospitals don’t really educate employees on the legal scope of practice. I’ve been educating nurses for 20 years and find that hospitals see nurses as a unit of labor, not as a professional.”
In today’s fiscally-focused health care landscape, there is always a concern that the scope of professional nursing practice is at risk from understaffing, de-skilling, and other encroachment, warns Brogan.
“The hospital industry is trying to expand the scope of nurse’s aides and medical assistants. Nurses are professionals with independent judgment,” he says. “If they are given too many patients to care for, as is often the case in non-unionized hospitals, they have to take them or they can be fired.”
All nurses need to remain current, competent, and within their scope of practice, or risk losing their license—and their career. Protect yourself by taking continuing education courses in nursing (online or in-class) or enrolling in an advanced degree program. If further formal education is problematic, you can learn informally through a professional nursing association, either for your particular minority group or one in your specific area of
Rachel Seidelman, RN, a direct care nurse at Providence Health & Services in Portland, Oregon, has been a nurse for eight years and continually updates her understanding of the law. She knows her state nurse practice act rules and reviews them regularly to ensure she protects her practice and her license. “The biggest thing that’s helped guide me comes through my union; there’s a branch for practice. I know state and federal law and the overlap. I make sure I know who I can delegate to, because it’s all on me if a colleague messes up under my umbrella.”
“How I was precepted really helped me as a young nurse without much work experience,” Seidelman says. “Part of the onboarding process is to ensure they understand the wage scale, the contract and their rights within it, and a lot of other things, too. I’m a preceptor now and will never stop because I learn so much from doing it.”
One example of how Seidelman expands her knowledge of issues related to nursing practice concerns the opioid epidemic. After reading a series about it in the state’s major newspaper, she wondered what her response should be as an off-duty nurse encountering a stranger overdosing. Should she carry the opioid antidote naloxone as a precaution? “That question led me to the Oregon Nurses Association, my employer, and discussions with pharmacists and mentors.” She couldn’t obtain the antidote without a prescription, but new laws enacted in 47 states make it more freely available. The surgeon general recently urged opioid users, concerned family members, and professionals to keep it on hand.
“In this day and age, it’s important to protect our own license and also protect our patients and colleagues. I advise fellow nurses to ask good questions, be curious, find answers, and then tell others,” says Seidelman.
Advocating for Your Patients, Community, and Profession
Nurses have long participated in the political process and sought to shape health care legislation that supports nurses as well as benefiting patients and communities.
Martese Chism, RN, a Chicago nurse, is inspired by the example of her great-grandmother, Birdia Keglar, a civil rights activist in the 1960s. “She marched in Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and lost her life because of it. Dr. King, in his speech, said he would like to have a long life, but that wish didn’t stop him from protesting,” she says.
Chism explains that her first college degree was in accounting, but she discovered “my calling is advocating for patients,” so she went back to school to become a nurse. “We’re supposed to advocate for our patients… I believe my fiduciary duty is to my patients, not the hospital. I advocate for my patients, but in the back of my mind, I worried about job security. I was single and didn’t have a family to support, but if I had, I wouldn’t have been so vocal without my union,” she explains.
One matter that Chism has spoken out about is the closure of public hospitals and other health care facilities in minority communities. “When elderly patients with no insurance need skilled nursing care our hands are tied [because of the closures] so now our uninsured patients have nowhere to go,” she says.
Some of Chism’s patients were retired public employees who aren’t eligible for Medicaid or Medicare. “They’re now turning 70 or 80 and they have no insurance. That’s why I’m fighting for Medicare for all,” she says. “As nurses, we’re supposed to advocate for our patients, but I don’t feel like I can without union protection. If I do, I’m branded a troublemaker. I’ve been speaking out in public for a long time and I could never get a promotion. If it wasn’t for the support of my patients, and union, I wouldn’t have lasted this long on the job.”
According to The Code of Ethics for Nurses (2001), nurses do have the right to advocate for themselves and their patients, and to do so without fear of retribution. Each state’s nurse practice act varies, but Chism was outraged when Illinois tried to remove “advocacy” from its nurse act. “They tried to say that your duty is to your employer, but our union fought to stop that. We don’t know about the future, though, especially with the recent [Supreme Court] Janus decision. The union movement might be weakened even more.”
Finding an Attorney to Explain Your Rights or Represent You
Even though you do your best to learn the laws related to nursing, you can’t always avert legal trouble. There may be a claim of professional negligence, say, and then you’d need to retain a qualified attorney in your area to defend you.
“Generally, look for an employment lawyer, they will understand the federal and local laws on wages, overtime, discrimination,” says Jeffrey M. Edelson, JD, attorney at Markowitz Herbold in Portland, Oregon. “They’re often divided by union and non-union. The tradeoff with collective bargaining is that an agreement could be in conflict with state law.”
If facing disciplinary action with the nurse licensing board, you may require an attorney who specializes in licensure protection.
Or your case may call for an attorney with experience in an entirely different area of practice. “For example, in the case of the Utah nurse [Alex Wubbels refused to draw blood from an unconscious patient], you’d need a criminal lawyer,” he explains. Or, if you work at a state hospital and are fired for expressing an opinion or acting on a matter of conscious, “you may need a constitutional lawyer in that you may have additional first amendment rights, versus if you’d worked at a private clinic,” Edelson adds.
A common way to find an employment lawyer is to checking profiles in listings such as “Best Lawyers in American,” he suggests. Or use your personal network of nurse colleagues, friends, or family to find an attorney. “Call your family lawyer, the one who does wills, and ask ‘do you know an employment lawyer?’” You’ll likely be referred to an appropriate attorney. Plus, “you’ll get that lawyer’s ear because you’ve been referred,” says Edelson, and they’ll each want to protect their professional relationship. Ask about their experience with your type of legal trouble or concern. Then inquire about fee structure. Some will charge for an initial consultation, while others won’t, and most work on a retainer basis, though some will take a case on a contingency basis.
Other resources for finding local attorneys: your professional nursing organization or union, the American Association of Nurse Attorneys (TAANA), and the State Bar Association.
In addition, you may want to purchase malpractice insurance (including license defense coverage) in advance of any need. Some professional nursing associations even offer a discounted rate, making it a prudent and affordable option.
Very soon it will be Halloween, the start of a holiday season that researchers warn adds an average of eight pounds — if you’re not careful about sweets and snacks.
Nurses have a lot of practice saying “no” to treats at work – boxes of candy from grateful families to trays of pastries from coworkers. Temptations abound, but they become especially intense during the next two months of the year.
Of course, we love getting together with teammates to mark Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Solstice, or the New Year. Plus, we’ll continue to toast other happy occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations, and job promotions.
So what’s the problem? Some surveys show that nurses are more likely to be overweight than the general population. Could the reason be extreme workplace stress and long shift hours? Or maybe it’s because the nurse population is aging, which correlates to a higher BMI.
You may not be able to do anything about events at work or your own slowing metabolism. But you can control your own actions, which will help you keep on the nutritional straight and narrow.
Here are a few ideas that have worked for other nurses:
First try to become aware of any emotional basis for your cravings for sweets and treats. It’ll then be easier to make behavioral changes, which will go a long way toward keeping you at your healthiest weight.
Decide beforehand on your “food rules” for this season, and then don’t deviate from them. For instance, you may decide to bring low-calorie snacks to events so that you’re not so tempted by sugary, fatty, or salty offerings. A cup of cubed cantaloupe is sweet (only 7 grams of natural sugar), while cut vegetables with Greek yogurt dip and air-popped popcorn with chili spices are savory.
Devise a healthy-eating phrase to repeat silently to yourself when you’re most tempted. Here are a few mantras to try this Halloween, and if some prove helpful, to keep handy all year long.
- “My stress level is through the roof, but chocolate is not the solution.”
- “Sugar is not the best antidote for fatigue from 12-hour shifts.”
- “I can accept the good wishes, but resist the treats from families and staff.”
- “I deserve better than sugary goodies when I work a night shift.”
- “Sweets can not change my not-so-sweet feelings of anger at work.”
In addition, try to cut out sweets in other areas of your life, too. The American Heart Association says to limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men. That’s a tall order when you consider that the American average is 22 to 30 teaspoons a day.
You have to be a good detective because sugar hides where you least expect it, like in coffee drinks. Compare a Starbucks’ Grande Vanilla Latte vs. plain coffee with a packet of sugar. The difference is a whopping 32 grams of sugar!
Of course, plain black coffee would be best, but that would probably be too big a shock to the system for a coffee drinker with a sweet tooth.
It’s better to make small and sustainable changes, such as eating and not drinking your snacks and meals. Fruit smoothies, for instance, enjoy a “health halo” but can pack on the pounds because they’re high-calorie, high-sugar, and apparently innocuous.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to fight the inevitable, like candy on Halloween, though you can sidestep some of the danger. So, don’t go hog wild but instead enjoy a fun-sized piece of candy (80 calories for most bars), and you won’t do too much damage.
It goes without saying, but don’t be the health saboteur who brings bags of candy to work. Your fellow nurses and other staff members won’t appreciate it.
At home, buy your least favorite candy for trick-or-treaters – and fewer bags than you think you’ll need to prevent leftovers. If you want to avoid temptation altogether, give out mini-toys or stickers instead of sugary treats. In a pinch, just reach into your wallet or piggy bank for some quarters and dimes. The youngest goblins appreciate even pennies!
It’s not easy to limit treats around Halloween, but remember, you’re taking good care of yourself, and setting a good example for your patients.
One of the American Nurses Association’s seven Bill of Rights for Registered Nurses is to “freely and openly advocate for themselves and their patients.” Yet, women and minorities may not be as effective advocating because they’re less likely to negotiate. There is a “win-win” negotiating style, developed at Harvard’s famed Negotiation Project, which may be more appealing. Practice them in small ways until they become second nature. Then when it’s necessary to advocate about safety, staffing, workplace violence, etc., you will be ready with a collaborative, problem-solving approach.
But if you don’t negotiate? Nurses who accept poor compensation or working conditions can end up feeling victimized, devalued, and unmotivated. With that attitude, they are less likely to provide excellent patient care and to get promotions. Don’t let that happen to you. Elevating your negotiation skills will lead to better communication, collaboration, and results for you and every other party.
Reframe the Concept of Negotiations
Given the overwhelming percentage of female nurses, it’s important to consider how gender plays into negotiation. Research shows that women are two and a half times more apprehensive about negotiating, while men are four times more likely to initiate a negotiation. In fact, 20% of women say they don’t ever negotiate, even when the situation necessitates it, according to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide.
That apprehension keeps many nurses from learning and practicing this important communication competency. “Negotiation is in the top five life skills that everyone should have,” insists Donna Cardillo, RN, author of The Ultimate Career Guide for Nurses.
“We negotiate all the time—with our kids, partners, patients, and coworkers, often without even realizing it. The word can have a negative connotation but only because most people don’t understand what it really is,” explains Cardillo. In health care, there is an additional connotation, and that’s terms of negotiation and union contracts, she adds.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, “negotiation” is defined as “to meet and discuss with another in order to reach an agreement.” But many of us suspect that in order to do that, one party must dominate, trick, or pressure the other into submission.
Sometimes, we have to reframe an uncomfortable concept, like negotiation, and perceive it in a new way, to make it more palatable, notes Cardillo.
“For example, say a nurse wants to attend a national nursing conference, and get paid time off, and expenses covered and so on. I’ll advise explaining the benefit to the hospital and the nurse manager. ‘By going, I’ll be able to bring back information from national speakers and experts to share. I will do an in-service session, or write a paper on it, and I’ll bring back printed materials,’” she explains. Nurses needn’t let a “No” response discourage them, either, adds Cardillo, because it may take repeated requests to get what you want. But if you don’t ask, the answer is always “No.”
Another way to reframe it, Cardillo says, is that by asking you’re planting seeds of change for the future, so you’re advocating for yourself and for your profession.
“Many of us were raised not to ask for what we want and to feel satisfied with whatever we got. I just saw a tweet from a nurse: ‘People say I need this job. I say this job needs me.’ That’s so true. Everyone is entitled to feel valued in the workplace,” she says.
Steven P. Cohen, author of The Practical Negotiator, has trained health care professionals in negotiation skills globally and agrees that nurses must self-advocate. “Your number one job is to look out for your own interests. Self-interest means maximizing circumstances to help you get what you need: good pay and benefits, rewards and resources that let you serve the patient. You must be well served.” He notes that if a nurse is treated badly, then he or she can’t function well, and patients suffer.
There are three kinds of interests to consider and prioritize in a negotiation—in conflict, complementary, or in common, according to Cohen. “If you’re going on vacation with a multigenerational family, how likely is it that you have common interests and all want to do the same things? Not likely. But you may have complementary interests. Your goal could be that everyone in the family will have a good time on the vacation.” He advises nurses to look for where there are complementary interests and no conflict, and to build step-by-step to a win-win solution. “Most anyone in a hospital, from aide to CEO, has similar objectives,” he adds “and is asking the same questions: How can I make the most of my job? How can I take care of the people I need to take care of?”
Negotiate in Your Off-Hours
One of the best ways for nurses to become empowered is for them to learn and practice good negotiation skills, asserts Michelle Podlesni, RN, president of the National Nurses in Business Association. “Why are we having nurses that don’t last two years in a hospital setting? Because they aren’t empowered and negotiation starts with assuming your power. I help nurses to understand their power,” she explains.
Podlesni believes that negotiation skills can be learned, like other important nursing skills. Earlier in her career she read The Power of Nice by Ronald Shapiro and Mark Jankowski, and it made a big impression on her. The book defines negotiation as using knowledge to get what you want, using the “three P’s” of preparing, probing, and proposing.
“Say a new nurse is getting scheduled in a certain way. How do they know it’s fair? You ask: ‘How is the schedule made?’ Nurses don’t always assess their own situation and propose what works better for them. We need to make a paradigm shift—your license is a license to start practicing in your business as a nurse,” Podlesni says.
Think of your negotiation skills as a muscle and flex it often in everyday situations. “Practice everywhere you go, even at the Macy’s makeup counter,” she says. “When you go to put lipstick on the counter, say ‘By the way, is this the best you can do?’ And then wait. And talk through a smile,” she advises. As long as you’re pleasant, salespeople will try to accommodate bargain-hunters, often pulling a percentage-off coupon from under the counter.
Even if they can’t give you a discount, clerks may have the power to sweeten the deal in some other way. “Another time at Macy’s I bought furniture and had to wait for an extended period during my workday, so I said to the clerk, ‘I know it’s not your fault but what can you do to help me out?’ She took away the delivery fee and saved me $150,” she adds.
For examples of opportunities in which to practice your negotiation skills and ideas about effective strategies, check out the blog The Daily Asker. A graduate student, Roxana Popescu, set herself the goal of negotiating a request everyday. So, at the farmer’s market, she might ask, “How about an end of the day discount?” She would often get it, or a free sample, or a bonus bag of produce. Over the course of one year, she asked for a discount 411. Analyzing her success rate, she discovered that she did better when she was nice (80%) versus when she was meek (58%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, she enjoyed the greatest success (85%) when she was very nice, or even flirtatious.
Negotiate with Coworkers
Whether delivering direct patient care as a manager, researcher, or as an entrepreneur, nurses need effective negotiation skills. Not every nurse is in a role that requires negotiating with patients, students, vendors, clients, or external agencies. But almost universally, nurses must negotiate with colleagues and coworkers.
“I’m a double minority, a male nurse and an ethnic minority,” says Usama Saleh, RN, BSN, MSN, PhD, a nurse educator. “Nurses are about 90% female today, but when I started it was only 3 to 5% male. I always felt like a minority in terms of gender, so I had to learn to negotiate with female nurses. Naturally there are differences in terms of negotiation styles. But I need to be able to work effectively within a female dominate profession.”
Usama was working as an RN in oncology and often negotiated with colleagues about the assignment of patients, for instance, and to resolve conflict so all parties are satisfied. In addition to ensuring an equitable workload, “it’s important to negotiate with your nurse mates on the team in order to deliver effective care. I always look at it in terms of quality of care,” he explains.
Usama came to the U.S. from the Gaza Strip and also had to become accustomed to the negotiation style of Americans who were born and raised here. “Culture and religion influence the etiquette of negotiation,” he says. “I wasn’t able to be aggressive; I was a soft negotiator. I admired it when negotiators were more assertive, but because of cultural factors I couldn’t do it.”
Usama also taught in China for short while and saw how negotiation is different there, as it is throughout the Middle East. Though he can adjust his individual style to the culture, overall, he’s happy with it. “I believe using a softer negotiating style has given me good results. It’s softer than usual in the U.S., but it is still effective and I’m very satisfied with the outcomes,” he adds.
Now You’re Ready for Salary Negotiations
“When I speak to groups of nurses I have a joke: Everything in life is negotiable except for the salary of a staff nurse,” says Cardillo. Most hospitals have set salary ranges for nurses, sometimes negotiated by unions, until you go on to be a case manager, supervisor, or manager.
If you’re not sure if salary negotiation is appropriate in your role or organization, Cardillo suggests you probe with these phrases:
- Is there any way to … ? (Boost salary, add benefits, etc.)
- Are any adjustments available?
- Is there any room for negotiation?
Where to get salary survey info: professional associations, National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), Salary.com, jobstar.org, bls.gov, medzilla.com, career fairs, career development centers, and coworkers.
Even if you can’t negotiate your initial salary, you may be able to negotiate during a wage and performance review or an improvement plan meeting. “Most of the time, nurses are nervous going in to that type of meeting,” says Podlesni. “Take ownership of the discussion and go in prepared with information and knowing your desired outcome.”
For example, in a performance evaluation where a nurse is judged poorly, he or she doesn’t have to accept an unfair assessment. In one such situation, “an emergency room nurse was told she did not have timely emergency room skills such as inserting NG tubes,” Podlesni recounts. “I advised her that evaluations need to be conducted fairly and use consistent criteria across that board…I recommended that she request a video or documentation of someone doing the skill in the timeframe suggested. They were unable to provide this, and as a result, she received her $10,000 annual salary increase.”
During a wage evaluation, you can always negotiate for a higher salary or better benefits package. “Say your salary is $60,000 a year,” Podlesni says. “What stops you from saying ‘I love my job and want to keep working here, but I need to get to $65,000 a year to spend that much time out of my home and to pay childcare expenses’?” You may not get that raise but at least it starts a conversation and then you can decide if you want to stay in the job or if it’s time to find a better paying employer.
Believe in Your Value
Minority nurses bring an extra dimension to their work that they may not recognize and value highly enough. “Being Latina and bilingual, bicultural, we’re typically in a culture that doesn’t boast,” says Adriana Perez, PhD, ANP-BC, FAAN, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. “We’re taught that you have to be modest, don’t call attention to yourself. It’s about building relationships and taking care of others. We have to balance humility with self-confidence.”
At the National Hartford Centers of Gerontological Nursing Excellence leadership development program, Perez learned the essentials of career success, including salary negotiation.
“AACN publishes mid-to-average salaries for professors that might not factor in additional skills or expertise,” she explains. “I’m bilingual, board-certified adult nurse practitioner, and researcher addressing health equity issues that are national research priorities. There aren’t that many Latina nurse scientists so it puts me in a great bargaining position. I can help the school meet its inclusion and diversity mission. But that’s not enough. I have to produce results and demonstrate a measurable impact.”
Polish Your Negotiating Skills
Many organizations offer professional development workshops that focus on cultural diversity, communication skills, negotiation, and conflict resolution. The leadership program that Perez benefited from included a career-enhancing mentorship relationship.
“We grew from mentor and mentee to now colleagues and friends. I attribute a lot of my growth to that program,” she says. “I recommend finding mentors. Study the leaders in your organization whose style you like and who are well-respected. Ask them for coffee: ‘Can we schedule some time?’ Nurses are giving and want to help. They’ll share lessons learned and will tell you about programs, scholarships, training, and other resources out there.”
It’s true that some nurses will never enjoy advocating for themselves. But it doesn’t have to be that way, with a little practice they can increase their confidence and ability. The end result: Better outcomes for everyone.
Few nurses have a solid grounding in personal finance about making decisions about their own financial future. Money management can be overwhelming. But you don’t need to learn the fine points of microeconomics – just the fiscal facts that pack a wallop on your wallet.
The good news is that the economic outlook for most nurses is rosy. Employment prospects are strong, says Donna Cardillo, RN, nurse entrepreneur and inspirational/motivational speaker. “The job market for nurses is much better. The market is cyclical and always has been. The last slump lasted about seven years, but that has all changed and many employers are now offering sign-up bonuses,” she explains.
The bad news? Many nurses still struggle to lead financially empowered lives, rather than being slaves to debt or just getting by paycheck to paycheck. Here are nine ways to make powerful personal and career decisions.
Evaluate an Employer’s Salary and Benefits Package
Often nurses decide to accept a job offer based only on the hourly wage, without being aware of the entire salary structure and how it can drastically pump up your pay.
Jon Haws, RN, CCRN, nurse educator and founder of NRSNG, wrote a popular article about how he doubled his first-year earnings as a new nurse. In “How I Made Over $70,000 My First Year as a Nurse (how I learned to game the system),” he recounts his experience as a newly graduated critical care nurse at a Level I Trauma center in Dallas, Texas.
According to Haws, that article “is a bit dated and I realize the $70,000 is nothing to a California nurse, but I outline some step-by-step ways to really maximize what you can make right out of school.”
Some of his steps included grabbing the pay differential for nights and weekends, getting an automatic raise after 6 months and a year, and working overtime and bonus shifts. That strategy requires that you make yourself an expert on your HR department or union contract rules, of course, which may be difficult before you’re hired. Not every employer is transparent about its pay policies. It’s easy enough to check Payscale.com or Salary.com for comparisons. Also, be sure to consult with a tax professional about the ramifications of higher compensation—you want to be ready when the tax bill arrives.
“The benefits package is something that employees don’t always take into consideration, but it can be significant,” says Launette Woolforde, EdD, DNP, RN-BC, vice president for nursing education and professional development at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York.
She encourages nurses to plan for the next step of their education and especially note those related benefits. “Some organizations offer employees some sort of tuition reimbursement plan. When you get a job and get through adapting to your new role as nurse, that’s the time to take advantage of those benefits.”
According to Woolforde, some organizations provide employees with a discounted rate or deferred payment options for a number of nursing schools. “So a $500 a credit may be reduced to $400 a credit and the student isn’t invoiced until after the class is over. By then the tuition reimbursement will have kicked in so students don’t suffer out of pocket expenses that disrupt their cashflow,” she says.
In addition, many organizations pay a stipend or differential based on a nurse’s educational achievements. “For example, let’s say the salary is $50,000 a year to start, but if a nurse has a bachelor’s degree, they may add $5,000 a year. If you’re certified they may add even more,” she explains.
Decide on Your Financial Priorities and Make Every Step a Learning Point
There may be a sunny employment outlook for nurses, but you still have to earn and save to fund your priorities. Not every nurse will have the same financial needs and not every nurse will experience life transitions in the same order. Yet, there are some goals, such as starting a family, buying a house, or early retirement, which many nurses aim to achieve and can—with some work on their inner and outer game.
“I made $35,000 or $45,000 my first years in nursing and had to figure out a way to increase income or reduce spending,” says Brittney Wilson, RN, BSN, nurse influencer at TheNerdyNurse.com. “I opened the door to those possibilities.” Wilson carried $40,000 in student debt that she now believes was avoidable, if she’d lived at home, attended a community college, worked a part-time job, etc.
As a young wife and mother, she tried many methods to economize, as she wasn’t emotionally able to work more hours at the bedside. “One example, I tried extreme couponing and was able to take our $600 grocery bill down to $100. I had to figure out a way to get diapers and formula for my baby,” she explains. Wilson started her blog a couple of years later, mainly for personal expression, but she also started getting free products and fees from brands. “People kept offering me money but initially I felt some guilt about it,” she says. “When I came to terms with it and actively decided to monetize my blog, I hung the ‘I’m available to be paid’ shingle directly, and even more offers came in.”
As Wilson felt more and more confident that she was providing a valuable service, she increased her ad and consulting rates, and focused her blog on her nursing specialty. “Earning extra income is like walking down a hospital hallway. It’s a journey. You can open each door and look around or keep going down the path. Just keep opening doors until you find the one that is right for you,” she advises other nurses.
Wilson got so good at earning and saving that she and her husband are on-track to pay off their house mortgage in a little over five years.
If you’d like to get better at the nuts and bolts of budgeting, bill paying, and tracking various financial accounts, you may want to try apps and programs like Mint.com. By corralling everything into one place, you get a better handle on your spending and saving, and can see in charts and graphs how well you’re doing with your finances.
There are also minority personal finance experts you can follow for advice from someone who figuratively speaks your language. For example, African American pros include Michelle Singletary, who writes “The Color of Money,” for The Washington Post and syndicates. Or, if you prefer podcasts, Rich Jones and Marcus Garrett host Paychecks & Balances for Millennials aiming to pay down debt
Decide When to Make Major Purchases
Even if a purchase is appropriate for your life stage, try to minimize your total household overhead. Even well-paid nurses risk fatigue from worry or overwork to manage bills and payments for one-time splurges or ongoing financial commitments.
Woolforde encourages nurses to carefully consider whether a major purchase is a sound money investment. “I see this often—the first thing a nurse graduate buys is a flashy, brand new car, as a reward for all that hard work in school. A flashy new car is nice but it’s a rapidly depreciating item as opposed maybe holding out for a down payment on a new home that appreciates for a good long-term return,” she explains.
You might decide that your next major investment will be in your own higher education or specialized training. If so, be sure to take advantage of employer-provided assistance programs before taking out large student loans. Maybe your current workplace has a tuition reimbursement plan if you’ll commit to working there after graduation, but you hesitate to limit your options. Find out how often graduates using that program decide to stay with that employer; usually the figure is high. If your circumstances and goals match theirs, you’re likely safe in taking the same route.
So many students lament how little they knew about educational loans that a free interactive game called Payback was created by a financial literacy non-profit. The makers warn: “College can help you realize your dreams, unless it leaves you with a student loan nightmare.” Students navigate an online maze of decisions: What school to attend, what major to declare, whether to focus on studies for a higher GPA or social life for more connections, etc. At the end, if a player does decide to borrow educational funds, it’s with eyes wide open.
Choose a Specialty That’s Fulfilling—And Remunerative
Whether you’re a new nurse graduate or you’ve been in the field for years, now might be a good time to switch to a specialty or workplace with better long-term prospects for pay and benefits.
Cardillo encourages nurses to explore non-traditional career options and to take risks. “Your next job may not pay as much, but may have many other advantages. When it comes to being a bedside clinical nurse in a hospital, there’s only so much you can make, even with overtime. Some other health care related industries have greater earning potential over the long run even if you have to take a pay cut in the short term,” she says.
Cardillo points to a variety of popular nurse settings and roles that pay well, such as: Nurse informatics, quality management nurse, corporate wellness nurse, insurance nurse, or nurse consultant.
You may also want to check out DiscoverNursing.com for interactive features that guide you through the process of choosing from scores of specialties. Some under-the-radar titles have surprising rewards, including high demand or ease of entry. You’ll get information on the education, training, and certification required to fill a role, as well as its average salary and employment outlook.
Decide to Cut Hours or Leave the Bedside Altogether
Reducing your hours to, say, care for a family can be a difficult choice that depends on many conditions, but it can be the right choice, if done right.
“If you opt to get out of the job market for a while, stay in touch with nursing colleagues through professional associations [and] keep up with credentials and licenses,” advises Cardillo. “Keep yourself current, marketable, and connected.” She warns that nurses who let their licenses lapse—accidentally or not—won’t be ready to jump back in when they need to or want to.
“Some nurses drop out of the workforce to take care of elderly parents, but then the parents die and they’re left with literally nothing and can’t find a job,” she warns.
Cardillo recommends that you first explore opportunities to work at home, which are more common today for nurses. If that’s not possible, check to see if your state allows for an inactive status license, rather than outright letting it lapse.
Another life stage when nurses may be tempted to let their license lapse is at retirement, but Cardillo sees downsides to that. “Nurses retire, but after so many years they get bored or financially need to work again because they don’t want a lower standard of living.”
Care for Yourself and Your Career Longevity
“Nurses are leaders—they advocate for their patients, but they struggle with advocating for themselves,” says Diane Neustadt, director of operations at New York-based Forest Hills Financial Group.
Her firm supports the National Association of Hispanic Nurses New York chapter, of which Neustadt is an active member. Because of her involvement with the chapter, she’s able to explain the importance of managing one’s own financial life in terms that nurses relate to. “I tell them it’s like being proactive about your own health. Nurses work long, unpredictable hours so self-care is so important: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I’m a spiritual person and also know the importance of financial well-being—live one day at a time but not just for today.”
Neustadt believes in “protection first,” which means having enough insurance and the right kind. “Employer-sponsored benefits are a good thing,” she explains, “but not only may company benefits not be portable and go with you, generally those employer-provided benefits are minimum benefits and should be viewed as the base of benefits to build upon. Three areas that normally need attention are disability, additional retirement income, and long-term care.”
Make the Most of Expertise from Family, Friends, and Coworkers
Woolforde received informal money mentorship from two unexpected sources who guided her to become financially savvy. The first was her older brother, who went to college when she was in her senior year in high school and was surprised at the expenses beyond tuition that he hadn’t anticipated. “When he came home at his first break he told me frankly, ‘You’re going to have to get scholarship money if you plan on going to college.’ So, we spent countless hours in the library combing through books and catalogs looking for scholarships. That was before everything was available online.”
She was doubtful about her ability to garner scholarship funds—others will have a higher GPA, more financial need, better applications. “At first, I said, ‘there’s no way I’m going to get it’ and he said, ‘you don’t know until you try,’” she explains. After piecing together several small scholarships—$600 here and $2,000 there from various sources—Woolforde was able to fund her freshman year at a commuter college. Good grades allowed her to garner full scholarship funding for the rest of her bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Woolforde next got valuable advice from a nurse preceptor who insisted they visit the hospital credit union after one shift. “She helped me open a retirement account and set up direct deposit of part of my paycheck into that account. I was just starting my career, so retirement was the farthest thing from my mind as a 21-year-old,” she says.
Try to find a money mentor who understands your situation and connects or relates to you in that way, advises Woolforde. “My brother understood the home situation and my preceptor maybe recognized me as her younger self—she was an African American female, too. Everyone who has walked this path, grown in professionalism, grown in a nursing career, it’s our responsibility to share what we’ve learned,” she says.
Make the Most of Your Employer’s Financial Programs
Your organization may offer employee benefit education, such as having an HR representative provide short updates at staff meetings, or making a vendor available for one-on-one consultations. Take advantage of these resources if they can help you fill in the financial puzzle pieces of your life.
“My family emigrated from Armenia when I was nine years old,” says Anna Dermenchyan, RN, MSN, CCRN-K, senior clinical quality specialist in the Department of Medicine at UCLA Health and a PhD student at UCLA School of Nursing. “At the time, my parents didn’t know the language or the culture, and thus we struggled financially as a family.” When she worked at a bank as a senior in high school, she learned about financial concepts and became more proactive about managing money.
Dermenchyan now actively engages with the University of California system’s excellent financial program for employees and students, which include onsite classes as well as live webinars on financial wellness and retirement.
“I’m an early Millennial and we think about work-life balance and living in the moment, and this necessarily doesn’t help us save enough money for the future. We want to earn, spend, travel, and just enjoy life,” she explains. “However, financial health is part of achieving wellness and maximizing potential benefits for the future. Just like with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—personal finance is at the basic level, and everything rests on it.”
Most nursing schools don’t include a financial component in the curriculum, so many workplaces fill in the gaps with seminars, consultations, and program “nudges” to encourage fiscal health. “At first, I just put in $100 a month towards retirement; that’s what I could afford after paying loans and family expenses,” says Dermenchyan. “The automatic deduction from each paycheck makes it easier, and some institutions make a matching contribution. In addition, I was advised by a financial consultant that with every salary increase, I should increase my contribution to retirement,” and she has continued to ramp up her rate of saving and investing.
Prepare for Retirement
Some nurse leaders point to numbers of disengaged older nurses who are forced to continue working because of under-funded retirement plans. They didn’t put aside enough money for the future, and early social security payouts at 64 are too small to support even modest lifestyles.
“Nurses are unlike other caring professions—police, firefighters, and teachers—because they don’t earn pensions from municipal government employers,” says Ric Edelman, a #1 New York Times bestselling author of personal finance books such as The Truth About Money and The Truth About Retirement Plans and IRAs. “That puts their financial future in jeopardy.”
Edelman is also the founder of Edelman Financial, one of the nation’s largest independent financial planning firms. His firm offers a free financial plan to nurses, waiving its customary fee for the two-meeting process—either in person or via teleconferencing—which results in recommendations for investments, insurance, estate planning, and more.
By starting the process toward financial stability and independence, you can empower yourself as an earner, saver, and investor. It is possible to experience the feeling of security that comes from having your financial life firmly in hand. This moment is the best time to take that first step.