Embarking on a career as a nurse marks a deep commitment to help people in need.  Putting other people first can become a habit, however, to the point where nurses fail to think about their own needs, and this is particularly true in the case of new nurses who haven’t yet learned the coping skills of their older counterparts.  This contributes to a rate of illness and injury that is three times the US average.

Many nurses try to take illness in their stride, telling themselves that it’s their patients who matter – but can you provide top-quality care for other people when you’re feeling ill yourself?  There is a reason why injured medical staff on battlefields are the first to get help: if they are out of action then others are deprived of their help.  Looking after yourself is key to doing a good job, even if that sometimes means taking time off or insisting on a break until you are able to cope.

Fatigue

In a busy hospital environment where there is always something else that needs to be done, it is all too easy to just push yourself continuously until you reach the point of collapse.  New nurses, in particular, often feel pressurized to work extra hours, to skip breaks and to step in to help colleagues even when they have already got a full list of their own tasks to complete.  The result, all too often, is fatigue.  Nobody is able to do a good job in this state and it can lead to persistent, potentially serious problems.

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Quick solutions like coffee just don’t cut it in the long term when it comes to fatigue.  There are only two things that can be done about it.  The first, and most important, is to get more sleep.  This may mean having to turn down shifts to take a couple days off, but it will be well worth it over the long term.  Sometimes it is only after a proper rest like this that people feel coherent enough to realize just how much they have been doing.  Secondly, where exhaustion creeps up despite this approach, you can make a difference by paying strict attention to your diet.  Increasing your intake of fruit and vegetables, getting frequent small meals consisting of slow-burning carbohydrates, and staying well hydrated all make it much easier for the body to flush out the toxins that can accumulate due to fatigue, making you feel much better and improving your performance.

Sore throat

One of the most common minor infections that affect people who are fatigued is a sore throat.  Often this just won’t go away.  It can make working difficult, because it is important not to cough close to a patient and risk transmitting the infection, and it can hamper communication on a noisy ward.  Antibiotics may not be the right solution, firstly because throat infections are often viral and, secondly, because of the risk of creating an antibiotic-resistant strain in an environment full of vulnerable people.  A better solution is to use a treacle-based cough mixture that soothes the throat without making you drowsy, and to ask to be allotted tasks that don’t involve having to raise your voice much.  Make sure dehydration is not adding to the problem.

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Back problems

Back injuries are common among nurses and should immediately be referred to a physiotherapist who can advise on preventing them from getting worse.  It is important to follow correct lifting procedures at all times to reduce the risk of problems, and to consult a physiotherapist if you are faced with a patient who can’t be moved in the usual way.

More problematic in some ways, because they go unnoticed, are minor back problems, which can do serious damage over time.  It’s a good idea to talk to a physiotherapist about the routine exercises you can do to help relieve problems like a stiff neck or aching lower back.  It’s also important to maintain good posture, and to remember that everybody has limits – there may be some tasks that you are just not strong enough to carry out and must refer to somebody else.

Anxiety

When you are in an environment where you are surrounded by suffering and where some patients die, there is a lot of pressure to get every little thing right for fear of the awful potential consequences of a mistake.  What if you forget something?  What if you are not there when you are needed?  This is a recipe for the development of anxiety disorders which can themselves have a serious impact on your ability to do your job.

If you are a new nurse, it may sometimes seem to you that older colleagues are uncaring.  In fact, most of them have simply learned to distance themselves psychologically from what they’re dealing with, a skill you will probably pick up in time.  If things don’t get better for you, and you find yourself in a constant state of distress, talk to your employer to see if therapy is available.  You may need to take anti-anxiety medication or simply take time off to allow you to adjust.  This is not, in itself, something to worry about – it’s a problem familiar to every healthcare employer.

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Diabetes

Left untreated, the common illnesses, stresses and strains faced by nurses, together with inconsistent patterns of eating and sleeping, can combine to place them at increased risk of developing diabetes.  For this reason, any pattern of dizziness or disorientation that you notice in relation to when you eat should be investigated immediately.  Sticking to a healthy, balanced diet can reduce the risk and, if you feel you are being asked to go too long between meals or snacks, then you should insist on getting short breaks as required.  Employers are generally good about this because they recognize the value of keeping their staff healthy.

Facing up to the physical and emotional stress caused by nursing work can be hard, because stress often feels like failure.  In fact, everyone will fail if pushed hard enough, no matter how amazing they are.  All your illness means is that you’ve been working hard.  As you progress in your career, you’ll get to know your limits better, and this will enable you to do a more effective job.  You’ll never be able to do everything, but you are doing something of tremendous value, and that’s what counts.

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