As increasing numbers of patients don’t speak English as their first language—or at all—the health care field is taking action. Here’s what’s happening and how you can become involved.
Imagine if you were in a hospital in a country where no one spoke English. Being in a strange hospital or other health care facility can be scary enough, but if you had no idea what was going on, it would make you more stressed—possibly making your health worse. You would feel incredibly vulnerable, as not knowing what was happening to you or if the workers could help you would be terrifying.
There was a time in the United States when that could happen. Although it shouldn’t happen, legally, anymore, as Allison Squires, PhD, RN, FAAN, explains, there is still a need for more bilingual nurses. “All health care facilities are required by law—including the Civil Rights Act and updated regulations in the Affordable Care Act—to provide patients who do not speak English with an interpreter,” says Squires, an associate professor at the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing. “The interpreter can be an in-person interpreter or a telephone or video interpreter to meet the requirements of the law.”
According to Squires, the increase in patients who haven’t developed English skills comes from two situations: the post-WWII legacy in which U.S. citizens came here as immigrants, and the most recent wave of immigration, which has matched or surpassed the immigration numbers of the early 20th century. “According to the Pew Research Center, one in five households in the U.S. speaks a language other than English at home. More communities are also becoming refugee resettlement cities across the U.S., which means increasing linguistic diversity in places that have historically only had English speakers,” says Squires. “The demand for nurses who speak another language is at an all-time high.”
Location, Location, Location
While all the sources whom we interviewed agree that Spanish is the most prevalent second language needed for patients, they also say that other languages are vital as well, depending on your region of the country. “Spanish is the priority language nationally. Other languages depend on where you live and who is migrating there,” says Squires. “For example, in the New York City and New England regions, there are now large numbers of Russian speakers. These individuals often come from former Soviet Union states where Russian was the official language. Other parts of the country, like Texas and Louisiana, have large numbers of Vietnamese speakers who came to the U.S. as refugees or immigrants. Other than Spanish, language demand is often specific to a local health care service area.”
“Spanish is the language in highest demand, particularly in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois. In California, bilingual skills are needed for Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian,” says Terry Mort, who is manager of talent acquisition for VITAS Healthcare, the nation’s leading provider of end-of-life care. In the 14 states and the District of Columbia in which they provide care, VITAS Healthcare has also found the need for Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Hmong, Korean, and Creole.
“We constantly have to look at demographics of the communities we serve and pay attention to how they’re changing over time,” explains Mort. “Take California as an example. At one time, South Central Los Angeles was primarily an African American community, whereas today it’s predominately Hispanic. And as our services move into outlying areas of Los Angeles County, our needs change again because we encounter more families that are Filipino, Asian American, or Hispanic American.”
Currently, in South Florida, several VITAS hospice teams are solely Spanish speaking to appropriately serve their patients’ and community’s needs. “In California, a trilingual nurse—someone who speaks English, Spanish, and other language—would be in high demand,” says Mort.
Although particular languages may be needed to serve certain populations, there are also instances in which unexpected languages may also be required. For example, when there was a recent influx of patients from Puerto Rico at the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center who needed health care after Hurricane Maria, there were more Spanish-speaking patients, says Edith Lopez Dobbins, RN. Dobbins is a JET Nurse, which stands for Just Excellent Timing and means that she is a full-time nurse who serves as supplemental staff for different nursing units throughout the hospital. As a result, she has noticed an overall increase in patients who speak Hindi and Korean as their first language.
“In the hospice profession particularly, we also have the challenge of end-stage dementia patients, who may revert to their language of origin as their disease progresses. We had a Russian patient who reverted to speaking Russian, but the family indicated he had not conversed in that language for more than 20 years. If that happens, it requires us to update our care plan so that our nurses and staff members can communicate effectively with these patients in a language they understand,” explains Karen Peterson, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for VITAS Healthcare. “The more languages our staff members can speak, the easier our job is.”
Benefits to Being Bilingual
Bilingual nurses on staff help open everyone up to another world as well as another set of patients to care for, says Vivian Carta Sanchez, DNP, ARNP, from Tenet Florida Physician Services. “Nurses who are bilingual can also serve as translators to communicate very important information from physicians who do not speak the language,” says Sanchez.
Squires says that if you work in a hospital, home care, long-term care, or rehabilitation, there are four key times when interpreters are needed—admission, patient education, consent, and discharge. “Using an interpreter during these times can help reduce your patient’s risk for readmission and complications,” explains Squires.
Having a nurse who is bilingual, rather than using a family member to translate, can be crucial. “Let’s say that I take five minutes to explain something in detail to a patient, and the family member who translates what I said to the patient takes about 30 seconds. I can tell that my patient isn’t hearing the same thing that I said—and that’s a risk to the patient, because they’re not getting complete information,” says Peterson. “It’s one of the reasons we prefer not to use family members as translators because they are part of the unit of care and also dealing with psychosocial issues associated with end of life.”
Another advantage to staffing or being a bilingual nurse is that when you are speaking the same language as a patient, the work you are doing will take the same amount of time that it does as when you are talking with an English-speaking patient, says Squires. There’s no need to be concerned about waiting for an interpreter to arrive or to have to deal with any issues that can occur when using an interpreter by phone. In addition, communicating with family members may also be easier. “That being said, as a bilingual nurse, if you are the first language nurse to work with the patient when they access health services—be they in the hospital, home care, or primary care—sometimes you spend more time with them initially because the patient is so happy to have someone who speaks their own language,” states Squires. “You find out all this other stuff that the patient held back because of the language barrier or issues with interpreter services. Another advantage of being a bilingual nurse is that you can quality check video or phone interpretation.”
Speaking to patients in their native language isn’t only about the words; it’s also about their culture. Dobbins says that while they use “language phone-lines” to keep at patients’ bedsides so that they, their families, and the health care workers can communicate—which is certainly helpful—the phones can also make talking more impersonal. “It makes patients and their families uncomfortable—possibly because it’s not just about language, it’s about culture. Most of the time, we use peers in the health care team who speak the same language as the patient for better communication and overall quality of care,” says Dobbins.
“Bilingualism is even more imperative in the hospice profession because there’s a lot of emotion and psychosocial aspects of language surrounding the dying process. Each person might have a different opinion or thought process around the issues related to dying. It’s unique in that people may have difficulty conveying their thoughts and feelings, even in the same language, simply because it’s about death,” explains Peterson. “Some patients or family members can’t even say the word ‘hospice,’ so they find a way not to say it. But when our nurses, families and patients understand each other’s language and cultural nuances, we’re more confident that patients are making the right decisions and receiving the best possible care because everyone understands each other.”
Knowing about patients’ culture has become so important that the Chamberlain University College of Nursing began offering a Hispanic concentration on its Phoenix, AZ campus in May 2016. Pam Fuller, EdD, MN, RN, the Phoenix campus president, states that this concentration doesn’t aim to attract Hispanic nurses, but rather to appeal to nurses who want to care specifically for this culturally diverse group. This concentration is offered to anyone who is enrolled in the university’s pre-licensure BSN program. Because of its ability to logistically provide clinical experiences for students who are enrolled in the Hispanic concentration, the Phoenix campus volunteered to pilot it. “The local hospitals and health care centers currently serve Hispanic patients and families every day, and Chamberlain helps provide nurses and care to these local communities,” says Fuller.
“Providing nursing care requires not just an appropriate educational degree and a license, but also crosses boundaries of human dignity and respect. Many, if not all, hospitals and care centers are challenged to communicate more effectively with their patients, regardless of cultural background. Chamberlain specifically launched the Hispanic concentration based on information from hospitals in our local markets,” explains Fuller. “When a patient is in pain or in need of health care, they tend to revert to what is comfortable to them, culturally. If you are culturally more comfortable with your own language and traditions, if there is someone who can speak—at least a little bit—the language you speak, it makes the care that much more effective and personal.”
“Chamberlain’s Hispanic concentration is not a language program. This concentration exposes students to the Hispanic language and culture and allows for 25% of their clinical experience to be placed with a Hispanic patient. This gives them real-time experience in serving the Hispanic population,” says Fuller. “Any student—regardless of their personal cultural background—may enter this concentration…The goal of the Hispanic concentration is to educate students and expose them to the culture and language of the Hispanic community to provide an improved level of care to this population.”
Attracting Appropriate Personnel
How can facilities go about recruiting bilingual nurses? Squires believes that a combination of actions could help. Nursing schools need to recognize local demand for bilingual services and restructure curricula to help ensure the success of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students, says Squires. “Even now, EFL students have lower pass rates on the NCLEX-RN exam, and that’s not helping to meet our need for more bilingual nurses. Schools need to change how they teach and support EFL students so they have the same success rates as English speakers,” Squires says.
“Organizations should give bonuses to people who are bilingual to encourage better communication,” says Sanchez.
As for becoming bilingual, Squires says that to achieve the level of fluency to be able to effectively and safely communicate with patients about health issues, nurses would be required to undergo years of study or at least a six-month immersion in a country where the language that they want to learn is spoken. “Having just a few words or phrases can be helpful for recognizing when a patient is in pain or [has] toileting needs, but when it comes to the complex communication needs that go with admission for services, patient education, consent, and discharge, you really need to have what’s called sociolinguistic competence in a language. That’s something that your employer should help you certify or do it on your own to make yourself more marketable,” says Squires.
At the end of the day, being bilingual or having bilingual nurses on staff is all about patients’ safety and comfort. “As a nurse, many of my most rewarding moments have to do with going the extra mile to help a Spanish-speaking family during their hospital stay,” says Dobbins.
Having a good credit score can provide you with a lot of benefits—we hear that all the time. Did you know, though, that it may also help you with your nursing career?
We didn’t either. So we went to April Brissette, Chief Credit Officer of Bankers Healthcare Group. She took time to explain how good credit can influence your career and how to make sure that you have it (or fix it if you don’t).
Please explain why having a good credit score can boost your nursing career. Can it help you get a better job? Do employers now look at credit scores before hiring or promoting?
A lot of employers do background checks, particularly those hiring for professional level positions, and your credit score can be part of the background check. No one can pull your credit without your permission, but that is often in the fine print of the background check you sign off on. Of course, you can decline a background check if you’re concerned about your credit score, but that might be a red flag to the employer.
Your credit score can be viewed as a reflection of your character. Someone with good credit illustrates being trustworthy and responsible; someone with poor credit can paint a very different picture. If an employer sees that you have public records (for example, bankruptcy or tax lien) or you’re past due on accounts, it can tell a story about your financial history.
For temporary positions, like a traveling nurse, background research has a tendency to go up. Why? Because when you’ve had numerous employers for a short period of time, they may not be viewed as strong references.
As a representation of your financial health, your credit score can open or close a lot of doors—not just for financing approvals, but for even getting a job.
How can a nurse find out what his/her credit score is?
Sign up for CreditKarma.com—it’s a free app/website where you can access your credit score as many times as you want, and you pay absolutely nothing. (Advertisers use the site to market to people, which is why it’s free.)
It’s incredibly important to know your score; it’s a laborious process to get things removed, so you’re better off being informed about what your report says. Check it regularly. When you’re doing a self-inquiry—checking your score yourself, also known as a soft pull—it does not impact your score, and nobody will know your credit is being looked at.
CreditKarma alerts you about anything that affects your score and gives you recommendations on how to improve it, as well as approval odds for different financing options, tailored specifically to you.
Suppose nurses don’t have good credit scores? What can they go about doing to raise them?
The best way is to keep your accounts current: Pay everything on time.
Reduce or eliminate the amount of inquiries you have. Only have your credit hard pulled if it’s absolutely necessary. For example, when buying a car, you don’t want to have three dealers pull your credit—because dealers then send it to their banks and before you know it, a ton of people have accessed it and then your score drops.
Keep your revolving availability at least 50%, ideally 75%. Let’s say your available limit on your credit cards is $10,000 total; you want to ideally keep your balance at $2,500 or less, but never past $5,000. The lower your availability, the more your score goes down, and that can be an indication that you’re struggling, from a lender’s perspective.
It takes time to improve your score. The most derogatory credit items can remain on your report for 7 to 10 years. They will have the largest impact on your score when they first appear. Over time, the impact it has on your report decreases. If you’re coming back from a terrible life event, you just have to take time to work toward improving it—but it’s important to use that time to get your score back up by doing everything right.
Ask to be added as an authorized user/signer—perhaps a parent or spouse can add you to use their credit card or to just have you added to the account. It doesn’t make you the authorized payer, but it goes onto your credit report and history. Just be warned that if the actual signer is late, it will also affect your score.
What are some tips to create a good credit score?
The number-one common mistake that young professionals make is opening a ton of credit card and store card accounts. This increases the number of inquiries and hits your credit score. They think it’s helping build their credit because creditors want to give them a card, but it won’t help get your score up. Ideally, you should limit your inquiries to 1 to 2 times a year. Every six months, try to establish credit with an institution—a credit card, auto loan, etc. And remember, make all of your payments on time and don’t go over 50% of your limit.
Pay off your balances in full on your credit card every month if you can. There’s a misnomer that if you don’t carry a balance, it won’t help your score—but it’s actually the opposite. Pay off in full if you can.
Don’t over-borrow. There are a lot of lenders that will give you more than you should borrow. Be smart, and don’t borrow something if you can afford to make the full monthly payment comfortably.
What are some things that nurses absolutely should do or shouldn’t do with their finances to keep a good credit score?
Do not pay anything late, no matter what it is.
If you can make even the minimum payment, do it, because if something is late, it’ll show up on your credit report. Credit cards should be used as a tool rather than a crutch. Use them to get your rewards or in an emergency situation.
Put everything on autopayments. This is a great way to make sure your payments are never late. It’s a great safety net; it won’t get your balance down unless you schedule to pay it off in full, but it can reduce the stress in that you never have to worry about incurring a late fee. A lot of lenders will offer you a discounted rate if you set up auto-payments—just ask.
Do not co-sign for someone else. In our experience, what we see is a lot of borrowers will co-sign for their children for auto-loan/school loan, and their child doesn’t make the payment—then their credit score can suffer. There is a misunderstanding that as a co-signer, not the main borrower, you’re less of a risk or free from it, but it’s not true.
Should they see a financial advisor for help? If so, what should they look for in one?
I don’t think it ever hurts. Seeing a financial advisor might not do anything for your credit, but they can help you take control of your finances.
Do your research—choose someone who is a certified financial planner. The credentials prove they’re educated and certified.
Is there anything that you think is important for readers to know?
You wouldn’t want to miss out on the perfect career opportunity because you haven’t protected your financial health.
Every workplace has its challenges. But, on the flip side, each has its advantages as well. We asked Beverly A. Ely, APRN, FNP-C, who works as a Family Nurse Practitioner in Harrogate, Tennessee, about what it’s like to see patients in a rural area.
Beverly A. Ely, APRN, FNP-C
What kind of work do you do?
I currently am a Family Nurse Practitioner and work with Lincoln Memorial University/DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine. We have 2 clinic locations that serve the University and the public. In the clinic, I see patients of all age groups from newborns to the elderly.
Working in a rural area is quite different from what most nurses do. Have you worked in a more urban or suburban area before this? If so, how does working in a rural area differ from those places?
My career spans over many decades and regions. I began a career in nursing in the late ‘80s. I graduated from Lincoln Memorial University with a degree as an Associate Nurse. I chose to begin my nursing career in Knoxville, TN and commute back and forth. Working in a suburban area, I encountered larger volumes of patients in which needs were very different than those in an urban location.
The urban area is different than the area where I first began my career. Coming back to it was a different experience, but one that has proven to be the most rewarding. I help them meet the simplest of everyday needs and assist them with coping skills to understand a diagnosis—this is rewarding. That is what I cherish about rural health and the people of the Appalachian area. I can now say that I can give back and serve the people that have given me so much.
Why did you choose to work in a rural setting? What kinds of patients do you tend to see? How are they different from those you saw in a more urban setting?
I chose to work and serve in the rural area of Appalachia because the needs are so great. I completed 29 years as a suburban nurse and saw many different classes for people. The common denominator for both is survival.
What have you learned from working as a nurse in a rural area?
I have learned to be patient and compassionate. I have learned that there is very little that we truly need in order to survive.
What are the biggest challenges of working in a rural setting?
The biggest challenge is compliance and understanding of their illness.
What are the greatest rewards?
Seeing people feel better and the smiles on their faces.
What would you say to someone considering moving to work in a rural area? What do they need to be willing to do or deal with?
I would voice that rural health is the most rewarding field that you can chose. It requires you to have compassion and patience.
Is there anything else about working in a rural area that is important for people to know?
Yes. Do I plan to continue here? The answer would be YES. It is the most rewarding of my 30 years as a nurse that I could have ever imagined. I’m compassionate and love the people of Appalachian and desire to see them live life to the fullest.
Being a nurse is a great career! Whether you’re caring for patients, assisting physicians, or talking with families, no day is ever the same. We polled nurses on why it’s a great time to consider a career in nursing in 2018, and here’s what they had to say.
“At the end of every day, I know I made a difference in someone’s life—every single day. I love being a nurse practitioner.”
—Yudelka Garcia, MS, RN, FNP-BC, Clinical Instructor, Columbia Doctors Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Group
“I love being able to help people recover or maintain their health while still being able to apply critical thinking skills and a knowledge of medicine. It’s always gratifying to have patients express their appreciation to me for taking care of them.”
—Paul Wohletz, BSN, RN, CCRN
“The health of the American nursing profession is as strong as ever in 2018. As an African American male nurse functioning in the role as a Nurse Practitioner, I stand on the shoulders of African American giants in nursing such as Beverly Malone, Elizabeth Carnegie, Mary Mahoney, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, to name a few. It’s an amazing time to be a nurse and NP in 2018 because the profession and roles are making positive gains and are ever evolving and expanding. The nursing profession is so dynamic, and nurses along with their patients and stakeholders are moving at light speed to eliminate artificial barriers to create a more inclusive, collaborative, collegial work environment without professional constraints or perceived glass ceilings.
Nurses and Nurse Practitioners are not only serving as Chief Nurse Officers, but are also serving with pride and distinction in other capacities including: Chief Executive Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Nurse Scientists, Deputy Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service, Chief Medical Officers, and many more.
The Gallup survey reports nursing as the “most trusted” professionals in the U.S. because of very high honesty and ethical standards. It is our time, right here, right now!”
—Captain James Dickens, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, FAANP, AANP Board Member-Elect, Manager of the Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
“It is great to be a nurse because I get the privilege [of] caring for people in their most vulnerable times…and I get to wear pajamas (scrubs) to work!”
—Jordan Kaczor, RN, BSN, PCCN, University of Kansas Health System
“You have the opportunity to help others who are in need.”
—Moonja Shin, RN, High Focus Centers, Ambulatory Detox, Paramus
“Now more than ever before, nurses are proving to be forces of change in the health care industry. Traditionally, the nurses’ role was limited to the four walls of the hospital. Now, nurses are taking their role as patient advocates to the next level by letting their voices be heard across multiple disciplines. Nurses are increasingly participating at the legislative level through federal lobbying, as well as getting involved in industries including technology, pharmaceuticals, education, and law. Nurses are even playing a larger role in fashion by designing scrubs, and in architecture by helping to design hospital units. It’s an exciting time for nurses as they expand their responsibilities both within the hospital and in their communities, working to affect lasting change in health care. It’s critical our nurses are able to apply their valuable firsthand experience as caregivers and feel empowered to influence leadership.”
—Aparna Bala, MSHI, BSN, RN, Clinical Transformation Consultant, AirStrip
“Nursing is the most fantastic career opportunity of which I am aware. With multiple entry points and endless possibilities ranging from the daily heroism of bedside nursing care to amazing research opportunities, leadership roles, management roles, and my personal favorite: academic nursing. A career in nursing means being surrounded by brilliant, caring people engaged in endlessly fascinating pursuits.”
—Robert Muster, PhD, RN, Regional Dean of Nursing Rasmussen College
The stress of nursing can take quite a toll on nurses emotionally and psychologically. Learn to recognize the signs, what to do, and when to seek help.
Abbegail Eason, RN, remembers some of the most devastating moments she’s witnessed as a nurse: a teenage girl learning she would never walk again after being shot by a gang member, a mom who gave birth but then died from a cerebral aneurysm just days later, and a baby who was left in a store’s parking lot and ended up dying.
“In these types of situations, it’s almost impossible not to be affected after your shift is over,” says Eason, a holistic coach at Abbegail Eason, LLC.
“Every nurse is susceptible to suffering from emotional distress,” explains Lucia M. Thornton, RN, MSN, AHN-BC, a consultant, educator, and author of Whole Person Caring: An Interprofessional Model for Healing and Wellness. Thornton and other sources we interviewed say that while all nurses can be affected emotionally, those in particular specialties may be more apt to experience this kind of issue. Some of the areas where nurses are especially at risk: emergency departments and trauma, intensive care unit (ICU), hospice, oncology, pediatrics, HIV clinics, homeless medicine, high-risk pregnancy clinics, palliative care, and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), among many others.
“Anyone who is empathetic and works in a caregiving role—including nurses and certified nursing assistants—are at risk for developing compassion fatigue and increased caregiver stress, which affects emotional health,” explains Karen Whitehead, MS, LMSW, DCC, CCFP, who provides counseling in the greater Atlanta area and at TurningPoint Breast Cancer Rehabilitation. “Nurses who over-identify with patients and blur boundaries, as well as nurses with personal trauma histories, poor social support, isolated working conditions, or a previous history of unmanaged anxiety are at greater risk. Feeling a lack of control about your work environment—including schedule, lack of recognition, or sense of community—can also contribute to caregiver stress.”
“Working in these areas with these types of patients triggers the sympathetic nervous system and keeps the body in fight or flight mode. This heightened stress reaction can, over time, lead to compassion fatigue and ongoing emotional distress,” she adds.
It can also be especially difficult for nurses because they are on the frontline of patient care, says Carl J. Sheperis, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, MAC, ACS, LPC. “Aside from the ongoing stressors of variable schedules, budget cuts, and constant technology changes, nurses are faced with a broad range of emotions experienced by patients,” explains Sheperis, a licensed professional counselor as well as the program dean for the College of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix. “According to the American Nurses Association 2011 Health and Safety Survey, over 56% of participating nurses had experienced some type of threat or verbal abuse from patients. All of these stressors compound and result in high incidences of compassion fatigue and burnout for nurses.”
Compassion Fatigue, Moral Resilience, and Burnout
Mary Bylone, RN, MSM, CNML, president of Leaders Within, LLC, and a former board member of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) often lectures and writes about the AACN’s healthy work environment standards. Bylone says that while compassion fatigue, moral resilience, and burnout are terms often used interchangeably because they do have a lot of overlap, they also have some differences.
“Burnout is best used to describe a situation in which an individual feels overwhelmed and exhausted. It can be seen when people sacrifice themselves for work or become overwhelmed with the feeling that the work is never done. Compassion fatigue refers to the weariness that develops from caring for individuals when the caregiver feels saddened that they cannot change the situation and give of themselves in the hope of relieving pain or suffering in the patient,” explains Bylone. “Moral resilience refers to the aspect of an individual’s character to rise above situations creating moral distress, such as being asked to provide futile care or care against a patient’s wishes. Resilience comes when the nurse is able to restore and maintain their integrity by challenging or pushing back when asked to do things they do not feel are right. It involves using one’s bold voice to speak up when others would remain silent—to ensure that the morally right thing is done.”
For the past decade, the AACN has addressed all these issues. Its National Teaching Institute recently held a special interactive session during which more than 300 nurses spent an afternoon sharing the types of experiences that would cause these feelings and sharing their solutions with their colleagues as well. “The AACN puts a lot of energy into hope and resilience rather than dwelling on the negative,” says Bylone.
Recognizing the Signs
“Experiencing emotional reactions is human and appropriate,” says Sheperis. “The key is recognizing when the emotional reactions are out of proportion to a situation or when they have a negative impact on you or others around you. Nurses are often good at compartmentalizing emotional reactions, but sometimes the compartments become full, and the emotions spill out.”
Some of the signs that a nurse is experiencing negative effects from emotional overload are: using a greater number of sick days and/or dreading going to work; feeling exhausted; problems sleeping; using drugs or alcohol to sleep; having work-related dreams, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts; being angry a lot either at work or home; yelling at patients or families; changes in mood or behavior at work; crying all the time; feeling angry at supervisors or coworkers; developing fears about the safety of friends or family; feeling less engaged in their personal and/or professional life; the inability to think clearly; headaches; gastrointestinal problems; irregular breathing patterns, feeling devalued, and losing the capacity to care about themselves, their patients, their family members, or really anyone.
This doesn’t even touch on the signs of clinical depression, which nurses may also experience. The point is that if nurses notice vast changes in themselves or in their coworkers, they may need to seek or suggest help.
The first action that nurses can take to keep their emotional health intact is to set boundaries, says Gail Trauco, RN, BSN-OCN, a grief mediator, owner of Front Porch Therapy, and author of Conquering Grief from Your Own Front Porch. Nurses can do small things to make themselves happy. “Be sure you have things that you visually see which create an immediate ‘happy sensation,’” suggests Trauco. “This can be a favorite coffee mug, bright-colored scrubs, flowers on your desk, or even a funny stethoscope cover.”
One of the biggest problems nurses have is that they tend to put everyone else’s care above their own, says Jill Howell, MA, ATR-C, LPC, a board-certified registered art therapist, professional counselor, and author of Color, Draw, Collage: Create Your Way to a Less Stressful Life. While she works at Pocono Psychiatric Associates, Howell worked with many nurses at the Pocono Medical Center. “It’s all about self-care—nurses will, of course, react by saying that they don’t have time,” says Howell. “Please remember what they say on the airplane—put your oxygen mask on first before you try to help others.”
When working with nurses, Howell would check in with them to see how they were dealing with work, give them an opportunity to vent, and make small self-care suggestions. She would also do quick guided meditations with them, teach a relaxation technique, or set up large sheets of mural paper and have them draw out their frustrations.
“I have found that most nurses, while they can care for others continuously, have a very difficult time in caring for themselves,” says Thornton. “Self-compassion is an important and useful practice for nurses to develop.”
“Nurses are givers. We go into the field because we are caretakers,” says Eason. “Many of us feel we are at our best when taking care of others.” She says that it’s important, though, for nurses to understand that they have to take care of themselves first. “Ensure you are getting adequate, quality sleep. You are eating a well-balanced meal. You are getting adequate exercise. You are spending time cultivating a life that is meaningful, rich, and deep outside of work,” says Eason.
After a particularly stressful experience at work, Lisa Radesi, DNP, CNS, RN, academic dean at the School of Nursing, College of Health Professions, University of Phoenix, says that nurses and other staff should have a debriefing session and remember that, despite all of the “bad” that occurs in their jobs, the “good” is the most rewarding part of what they do.
“Nurses should work together to ensure that they are okay after an incident. If a nurse notices a coworker is not doing well, they should talk with the coworker and bring it to the attention of the supervisor or manager,” says Radesi. “Above all, nurses should feel comfortable seeking treatment and communicating about emotional issues they may experience. Keeping this information bottled up can lead to issues and stress that have long-lasting effects. Know that it is not weakness, but strength, to acknowledge emotional disturbances and respond to them accordingly.”
If you see a coworker in distress, you can do something as simple as strike up a conversation with her or him, advises Bylone. “Use open-ended questions to find out how they are doing. Sometimes hearing the other person’s story really puts things into perspective. Let them know you care, and you are there to help, if only to listen. Please do not watch them suffer alone. Left unattended, these feelings only deepen and create lasting impact, often causing them to leave the profession,” she says.
Seeking Professional Help
Let’s face it: there are times when a spa day, time out with friends, or a bubble bath just won’t cut it in alleviating emotional problems. That’s when nurses need to seek professional help.
“If you are experiencing distressing symptoms over an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to check in with a professional therapist or counselor,” says Whitehead. “Whether it is distress from work or something related to your life outside of work, connecting with a professional can help you be a more effective caregiver and build your own resilience to mitigate the effects of your chosen population at work.”
If you need professional help, first see if your workplace has a program for staff members. If not, Sheperis says that the National Board for Certified Counselors has a directory of board-certified counselors across the United States (visit nbcc.org for more info). PsychologyToday.com also has a therapist directory that includes profiles of providers who can help.
There’s no shame in seeking help to get better. Sheperis says, though, that all nurses should do whatever they can to prevent their emotional stress from getting to this level. “Most people only seek professional help after something in their life had caused significant distress. While it is important to seek help if you are reaching a level of burnout or compassion fatigue, it is much better to take proactive steps and to work with a counselor to build resilience prior to hitting an emotional wall,” he says.
Sheperis also suggests that nurses focus on wellness practices at the onset of their careers. “It is easy to become engrained in a high-pressure system and to become emotionally overwhelmed if you don’t have a set of wellness practices in place.”