Four ways to sustain a nursing career

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Nursing is a career that requires passion and dedication. Those individuals who take on the responsibility make a huge difference in the lives of their patients and the quality of the health care organization they serve. While nursing is a high calling that results in rewarding careers for millions of professionals each year, it is also a vocation that brings its fair share of stressors. If not addressed appropriately, these factors can cut short the careers of talented nurses who make a real difference in the workplace. When these professionals leave their jobs, they not only are giving up a career that they love — their absence also can take a toll on both patients and medical organizations.

Most nurses who enter the field expect to dedicate many years to their profession. To avoid burnout and sustain a career in nursing, it is important for professionals to be intentional about these four areas:

1. Managing long hours and mandatory overtime

As in any position, it is important to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But for some nurses, that balance can be difficult to find, often because of the sheer dedication that nurses have for their work. It is not unusual for nurses to work long hours and navigate a regularly changing schedule. While 12-hour or longer shifts can be exhausting, Health Leaders Media reported that it is the mandatory overtime that can make it difficult for nurses to sustain their careers. When staff members are required to work overtime, it can be difficult to maintain healthy boundaries between hours spent at work and at home, causing a strain.

Though nurses cannot always control the hours that they work, it is important to ask about the frequency of mandatory overtime before accepting a job offer. Nurses who know that they struggle with maintaining a healthy work-life balance should be particularly cautious about this possibility.

However, mandatory overtime and long hours are not impossible to manage and do not need to result in burnout if addressed appropriately. Everyday Health reported that receiving proper support from others within the organization is critical when it comes to working extended shifts. If nurses ask for the support that they need and feel that they can depend on other members of their team, they will find it easier to manage long hours and mandatory overtime, which will allow them to take better care of both themselves and their patients.

2. Limiting stress

Everyone manages stress differently. Some people thrive in high stakes environments, while others can find continual pressure exhausting. Because nurses tend to work in settings that are rife with life and death situations, some find that the stress can get to them over time. In fact, a 2011 survey by the American Nurses Association found that approximately 75 percent of nurses ranked the effect of stress and overwork as their top personal health concern. Furthermore, stress combined with the emotional toll of caring for sick and dying patients can result in burnout, which is one of the leading causes of nurses leaving the profession.

Consequently, it is critical for nurses to learn how to both limit and manage their stress. Nursing professionals should make time for self-care during their hours outside work and communicate with a supervisor if a particular patient or task is taking a toll on them while on the job. Taking time off also is important. Nurses should see their vacation time as an investment in their own personal well-being and health, even if it is just the occasional long weekend or trip to visit family.

Additionally, EveryDay Health reported that education is critical. The risk of burnout needs to be addressed early in a nurse’s career — during school if possible — so that professionals can take appropriate precautions.

“It is essential that our students learn to set limits as well as how to adaptively cope with the stresses of nursing school,” said Deborah Daniels, an assistant professor of nursing at Bradley University. “This ability to adapt eventually will help them manage stress in the work force.”

3. Creating a positive work environment

Bullying and other forms of bad behavior are not limited to the school playground. All too often, adults can be guilty of creating these kinds of negative environments, as well. Health Leaders Media reported that few things make a nurse want to walk out the door as much as bad behavior by other staff members, whether it is a doctor, fellow nurse or administrator. Accordingly, creating a positive work environment is critical for ensuring that nurses can sustain their careers.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) reported that nurses and their employers should actively work to promote a culture of respect in the workplace. Implementing proper strategies to attain this end helps to ensure the health, safety and wellness of nurses in health care organizations. Nurses who want to learn more about ending workplace bullying should read the ANA resource “Incivility, Bullying and Workplace Violence.”

4. Staffing levels

One of the best ways to ensure that nurses work in a positive work environment with limited stress and reasonable hours is to have a fully staffed team. When there are not enough nurses to cover the work that each day brings, stress levels can rise. In fact, according to nurse Karlene Kerfoot, Ph.D., the vice president of nursing for API Healthcare, one of the most common reasons nurses leave organizations is staffing levels. If a unit is understaffed, nurses may feel overwhelmed. Even teams that are staffed fully may be poorly organized and feel inadequate as a result. A nurse also may feel that he or she is assigned to difficult patients more frequently than others on the team, which can lead to frustration. To address this problem, many organizations are starting to use health IT software to monitor staffing levels and patient assignments.

While managers may be the people who ultimately are responsible for how staffing is handled, the ANA reported that it is important for nurses at all levels to be knowledgeable about staffing and how it affects their patients. According to the ANA’s Nursing’s Social Policy Statement:

“Nurses, as members of a knowledge-based health profession and as licensed health care professionals, must answer to patients, nursing employers, the board of nursing, and the civil and criminal court system when the quality of patient care provided is compromised or when allegations of unprofessional, unethical, illegal, unacceptable or inappropriate nursing conduct, actions or responses arise.”

Nurses who find themselves working in organizations that are constantly understaffed may need to speak to a supervisor or eventually consider looking for a new position elsewhere to avoid burnout.

By being intentional about taking care of themselves, nurses will be able to provide quality care to their patients and enjoy a rewarding career for many years to come.