Over the years, nurses have expressed their substantial risk for workplace stress. During the pandemic, 70% of the nurses surveyed by HealthyNurse® said they put the health, safety, and wellness of their patients before their own. Unsurprisingly, during the pandemic, large numbers of nurses reported feeling down, sad, and depressed.
By focusing on self-care for nurses and paying closer attention to their mental health, there’s hope to improve this situation. After all, according to the mission set forth by Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation (HNHN)—a program of the American Nurses Association (ANA)—the way to improve the nation’s health is ”one nurse at a time.”
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is any deliberate activity that we engage in to improve our physical, mental, or spiritual well-being. It is important for workers in every field, but especially for nurses, who spend their working hours caring for others. Self-care reduces stress, replenishes a nurse’s capacity to provide compassion and empathy, and helps improve quality of care. It’s also recommended by the ANA in its Code of Ethics.
Proper self-care practices for nurses have become especially important in recent years. In one survey of nurses conducted at the peak of COVID-19, 80% reported that they were suffering mental health effects because of the pandemic, and 60% said their physical health was being affected as well. Post-pandemic, nurses’ mental health remains a concern.
“Nursing can be a traumatic field to work in,” says Wendy Mason, PhD, faculty member in the School of Nursing at Purdue Global. “Nurses are exposed to pain and suffering and trauma. We are often traumatized and do not even realize it. Self-care is actually a responsibility that we have, as you can see in the Code of Ethics. If we aren't caring for ourselves, we can't care for others.”
This article examines why self-care is so important for nurses, how to develop a plan for self-care, and what nurse managers can do to promote self-care among their team members.
Self-Care Is Mandated by the ANA Code of Ethics
The fifth provision of the American Nurses Association’s Code of Ethics states that the moral respect that nurses extend to all human beings should extend to themselves as well. These duties include the responsibility to:
- Promote health and safety
- Preserve wholeness of character and integrity
- Maintain competence
- Continue personal and professional growth
Why Is Self-Care Important for Nurses?
Self-care is a way to reduce the stress that comes with nursing.
Mason says, “The analogy I use for my students is, ‘Think of yourself as a bank account. You can keep spending, but if you don't turn around and put something back in, you're going to end up in a serious deficit.’ That leads to burnout.”
Self-Care Replenishes a Nurse’s Empathy and Compassion
Empathy and compassion are critical components of a nurse’s care. The more taxed a nurse is, the more likely that their capacity to provide these will suffer.
“We keep pouring empathy and the compassion out, without replenishing them,” Mason explains. “We need to practice empathy and compassion for ourselves, as well. When you don't have anything left to give, you’ll sometimes see symptoms of depression or anxiety. You may see strain on the nursing units or a lack of investment in the work. It can actually place patients as well as nurses at risk.”
Self-Care Promotes Patient Safety and Higher-Quality Care
Provision 5.6 of the Code of Ethics addresses the reciprocal relationship between professional and personal growth.
“You can see why it's so critical that we do provide care for ourselves—because we bring that into the workplace, and the quality excels,” Mason says. “It also complements others' work and promotes a higher quality provision of care. So it's a responsibility to ourselves as well as our patients, our colleagues, and the health care environment in general.”
How to Create a Self-Care Plan for Nurses
Take the following steps to develop a plan for self-care:
The first step to crafting a reasonable self-care plan is self-reflection and self-assessment. Where are you currently with self-care? You may wish to assess the following areas of your life:
Identify opportunities for growth. Mason asks pointed questions to help hone in on any shortfalls: “Do you have a spiritual or self-care deficit? Are you not attending to your needs? Are you eating too much—or not enough—to fill a void?”
Decide which interventions you need to implement. Examples include:
- Physical. Get regular health screenings, eat clean and nutritious meals, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise.
- Mental. Use relaxation and imagery techniques. Focus attention away from fear-based, negative thought patterns and become more open to life-affirming information and patterns of thought. Seek books and groups that promote joy, and pursue counseling if necessary.
- Spiritual. Engage in activities that develop your higher self. This could be accomplished via a religious affiliation, but it doesn’t have to be. Practice meditation or yoga and say positive affirmations.
- Personal. Engage in truthful and caring self-reflection regarding your communication with others. Identify both the cohesiveness and the disharmony in your relationships. Strive to be aware of the effect both have on family and friends. Nurture important relationships.
- Economic. Live within your means. Take the steps necessary to balance your economic health. Sometimes, less is more.
- Psychological. Embrace your creativity and play. Identify what stimulates your mind and invest time into these activities.
“We've got to be advocates not only for our patients but for ourselves,” Mason says. “Look at the Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation Grand Challenge—the American Nurses Association provides some wonderful recommendations on how nurses can practice self-care and lead a balanced life.”
>> Read: Self-Care for Nurses Part 2: Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Health Practices
How Nurse Managers Can Support Their Team
Nurse managers play a vital role in helping shape their team’s morale and ensuring that everyone is functioning at their best. Modeling self-help behaviors as a leader and implementing effective self-care strategies for nurses can have a significant impact.
Some self-care techniques that managers can incorporate into their own routines for modeling purposes include taking regular breaks, pursuing physical activity, establishing healthy boundaries, and focusing on their general well-being whenever possible. Once these behaviors are commonplace, it helps diminish the stigma often associated with discussing stress and mental health.
And by providing easy access to important self-care resources that emphasize staff well-being, nurse leaders open lines of communication that can benefit the nurses on their team.
Here are some ways a nurse leader can further enhance nurse self-care:
- Be mindful of hours worked. Studies show that limiting an existing workload or encouraging flexible work hours can have a positive effect on staff. This is a good way to monitor your nurses’ stress levels and prevent burnout.
- Set up workshops with your team. Leaders can take an active role in encouraging healthy practices by supporting mindfulness workshops, balanced sleep, and stress reduction exercises.
- Open communication approach. Set up regular meetings with your team of nurses to listen to their doubts or concerns. By voicing their issues or other pressing worries, this approach can help improve efficiency and overall job performance.
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