The contributions of a nurse in today’s crisis – stricken society are countless, especially in the midst of this pandemic. For that reason, thorough explanation of the nurses’ role is imperative for greater appreciation. Nurses have well known responsibilities including but not limited to recording medical history, vital signs and symptoms, patient advocacy, monitoring patient health and administering medications and/or treatments. Nurses collaborate with members of the interdisciplinary team for better patient outcomes and educate patients and their families about the management of illnesses. In academic settings, we educate aspiring nurses and propel them to achieve their goals in the midst of challenging life circumstances. As they say, nurses wear many hats, and as a result, nurses are burning out.
A nurse must advocate for patients beyond the health care environment while utilizing a holistic care approach; a patient may be admitted to a hospital or other health care setting for a particular ailment. However, the nurse must question this patient’s ability to care for themselves on their own, and if incapable, ensure that adequate support is in place upon discharge. Nurses also care for patients’ families. Often times, difficult conversations must occur and nurses are challenged to interact with those on the receiving end. Nurses are usually the first to notice irregularities due to the first phase of the nursing process – assessment. Nurses are the punching bags for the frustration of others on a daily basis. While nurses ought to possess qualities of resiliency, they are also human, and if empathic in nature, easily carry the stress of others on their shoulders. Hence, while taking work load, work environment, and coping mechanisms into consideration, nurses are at increased risk for burnout.
Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. It has many physiological effects. In a recent study conducted by Salvagioni et al (2017), burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years. Specific to nurses, in a 2019 study, 14.4% were found to be unengaged with their work, 41% of those respondents reporting feelings of burnout. Due to the physical and emotional demands of the job, nurses ought to be cognizant of the warning signs of burnout (anxiousness, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and frequent illness) because they are putting their health in jeopardy. Please take into account that these statistics are not reflective of the impact COVID-19 has had in the nursing industry. Therefore, in 2019 – 2020, these statistical figures are presumed to be more alarming.
In September 2018, I recall being transported by an ambulance from a clinical setting to the hospital. Runs of atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia flooded the heart monitor as I struggled to maintain my strength, oxygenation and my life. “Look! You can show these rhythms to your students!” said the EMT as life threatening rhythms printed from the monitor. My usually jovial self immediately thought, “Did he really have to say that and could this get any worse?”
At the time, I was a nursing education supervisor for a technical school. The program grew exponentially and I was expected to supervise both day and evening programs. This not only meant overseeing and executing the curriculum’s development and application, but also subbing for instructors as necessary, which was quite often. I was a single mother in need of more support. My divorce was recently finalized. Ageism and racism were also my contenders in the work environment. I was challenged when giving direction to a group of women, my staff, who were older and looked different from me. I was expected to provide hope for my students who had lost hope in themselves due to extenuating life circumstances. Inadvertently, I experienced the warning signs of burnout such as anxiousness and chronic fatigue, but ignored them, leading to my experience in September 2018.
In the year of 2019, I went on a quest to find a work environment that was more holistic and welcoming. The familiar saying, “Nurses eat their young” resonated within me. My mental health suffered as I experienced feelings of being unappreciated and belittled. Nonetheless, in the midst of all of this rain, the sun did shine again. I decided to return to my home district as a school nurse, which gave me an opportunity to give back to my community and encouraged healing for my broken soul.
As a survivor of burnout and the consequences that came with it, I feel the need to bring awareness to the fact that nurses need to be nursed. So, who nurses the nurse? If possible, nurses must nurse themselves by doing the following:
Evaluate Your Own Personal Life.
Ask yourself, have I recently experienced life changing events and have I taken enough time to ride life’s emotional rollercoaster? Trying to balance work and these emotions can lead to a very bumpy ride (burnout). One may need to request time off from work or even take a leave of absence. Taking these actions does not mean that you are weak. It just means that you are taking a step closer to healing.
Identify Sources of Support.
As John Donne said, “No man is an island. No man stands alone.” It is impossible to navigate through these difficult times in solitude, so finding a trusted confidant is important. It may be a family member or a close friend. For some, it may involve getting help from a licensed therapist. Once having adequate support systems, you will come to the realization that you are not alone. This notion generates healing thoughts and behaviors.
Ask For Help.
Nurses have a tendency to practice autonomy and often forget about asking for help. We always give but do not want to receive.
Diet and Exercise.
You are what you eat, therefore in order to promote feelings of wellness, we need to eat foods and participate in activities that support wellness. Overall, one should base their diet on whole grains, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, and reduce fat, salt, and sugar intake. We should also aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily.
Watch Your Water Intake.
Men and women need approximately 3 liters of fluid daily, however water requirements vary depending on weight. As it pertains to burnout, water can help maximize physical performance. Water also significantly affects energy levels and brain function.
Make Time For Hobbies.
Do not forget about your interests. Make time for these activities. It could be as simple as listening to music or watching an interesting TV show. I’ve always loved dancing. Since my experience in 2018, I joined a ballroom dancing/social community.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation.
This is the practice of actually being present in the moment which in turn trains you to become more mindful throughout the day, particularly during stressful situations. There are an abundance of mindfulness meditation exercises that can be found on the internet. I do these exercises daily.
Get Enough Sleep.
We need at least seven to nine hours of sleep daily to function at our best. If you are having a hard time achieving this, talk to your doctor. You can consider non-pharmacological methods such as teas and lavender oils. According to the National Sleep Foundation, obtaining healthy sleep is important for both physical and mental health, improving productivity, and overall quality of life.
Watch Your Appearance.
If you think you look good, chances are you will feel good too. Participate in practices that enhance positive feelings about personal appearance. Do a facial. Get your eyebrows waxed and your hair done. Do you!
The above recommendations highlight the importance of self-care. I urge each and every nurse to take part in such practices before it is too late. The disease processes that result from lack of self-care are probable, but preventable. So before you become dependent on a caretaker due to illness, remain independent by being your own best nurse.
Special Thanks: Desmond & Lillieth Gayle; The Wong Family; Nayomi Walton, PhD, RN; Therelza Ellington, RN; Anisa Cole, LCSW; Bloomfield Public Schools