February 13, 2019  |  Purdue University Global  |  Updated April 28, 2021

According to data collected from the HealthyNurse® survey by the American Nurses Association, there is “an urgent need to improve [nurses’] health, particularly in the areas of physical activity, nutrition, rest, safety, and quality of life.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 70% of the nurses surveyed for the study said they put the health, safety, and wellness of their patients before their own. At the same time, 77% reported they were at “significant level of risk” for stress in the workplace.

What Is Self-Care?

Self-care is any deliberate activity that we do to provide for our physical, mental, and 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 improves the quality of care. It’s also recommended by the American Nurses Association in its Code of Ethics.

Proper self-care practices for nurses are especially important during COVID-19. In one survey of nurses, 80% reported that they were suffering mental health effects because the pandemic, and 60% said their physical health was being affected, too.

“Nursing can be a traumatic field to work in,” says Wendy Mason, PhD, faculty member in the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global. “Nurses are exposed to pain and suffering and trauma, and we are often traumatized and not even realize it. Self-care is actually a responsibility, 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 and how to develop a plan for self-care.

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 “extends to oneself as well: the same duties that we owe to others we owe to ourselves.” These duties include the responsibility to:

  • Promote health and safety
  • Preserve wholeness of character and integrity
  • Maintain competence
  • Continue personal and professional growth

Self-Care Is a Stress Management Tool

Self-care is a way to ameliorate the stress that comes with nursing.

“The analogy I use for my students is, think of yourself as a bank account,” Mason says. “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 things 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 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.”

Nursing Interventions for a Self-Care Deficit

Take the following steps to develop a plan for self-care:

Step 1

The first step to crafting a reasonable self-care plan is self-reflection and self-assessment. Where are you currently at with self-care? You may wish to assess the following areas of your life:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Spiritual
  • Relationships
  • Economic
  • Psychological

Step 2

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?”

Step 3

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. Spiritual potential does not develop without some attention. 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. 
  • Relationships. 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

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