Nurses work in a care profession that prioritizes the health and well-being of patients above all else. Nurses in training learn that patient care is paramount — an idea reinforced by the Nurses Pledge of Service. In effect, some nurses come to regard self-care as selfish, resulting in added stress and frustration when they inevitably feel the pull to rest and recharge.
Yet everyone needs self-care — especially those working in a care profession such as nursing. Once nursing professionals have recognized the importance of self-care for nurses, they can implement specific strategies to renew themselves in this rewarding yet demanding role.
The Importance of Self-Care in a Patient-Focused Profession
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the importance of self-care for improving health and well-being. It defines self-care as the ability to prevent disease, promote and maintain health, and cope with disability and illness — with or without health care worker support.
In the case of nurses, self-care means taking action to reduce stress and take care of one’s own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Rather than viewing self-care as an occasional indulgence, nurses should consider self-care as a pillar of preventive care.
The need for health care workers to focus on self-care was made abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 and Nurse Burnout
Disease outbreaks are a constant global threat and can place a significant burden on health care workers. The WHO reported a record 130 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2021, with much of that need stemming from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Exacerbating the crisis, the WHO estimates a shortage of 18 million health care workers by 2030.
The pandemic highlighted an urgent need to innovate our health care system. Issues that affected nurses most included:
- Lack of hospital staff
- Lack of bed space/increased number of patients
- Increased turnover
Hospitals and health systems posted around 20% more permanent vacancy replacement jobs during the pandemic compared with the start of the pandemic in 2020, Healthcare Dive reports.
These trends show that more changes are needed to empower nursing professionals to do their best work under challenging circumstances.
Signs of Nurse Burnout
Burnout manifests in many different ways among nurses. Common signs include:
- Anxiety. Burned-out nurses may feel acute worry and have difficulty managing negative emotions, both on and off the job.
- Depression. Prolonged periods of mood and energy decline, along with feelings of meaninglessness or numbness, may be the result of burnout.
- Emotional detachment. Nurses may begin to feel like they “aren’t there” at work and are unable to be fully present with patients.
- Exhaustion. Burnout can show up as chronic fatigue — an inability to feel rested or rejuvenated.
- Inability to focus. Nurses experiencing burnout may struggle to pay attention to details at work or forget basic information.
- Insomnia. Being unable to fall or stay asleep may indicate burnout.
- Frequent illness. Burnout may show up as psychosomatic symptoms, including heart palpitations, digestive issues, headaches, chest pain, and other illnesses, as the immune system weakens.
Burnout can result from what some researchers call “compassion fatigue,” also referred to as vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress. Compassion fatigue occurs when a person feels emotional and physical exhaustion as a result of providing care for others.
Nurses help patients manage their medical concerns and find ways to cope with illness and injury, but they often provide such care with little or no support. The repeated exposure to patient traumas and the frustration with slow institutional change can compound to put nurses at higher risk for burnout, illustrating the urgent need for self-care for nurses.
How Nurses Can Practice Self-Care
Nurses can engage in the following activities to preserve their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Self-Care Activities for Nurses
- Rest. Everyone needs rest. Getting sufficient, high-quality sleep is necessary to be effective in a demanding job like nursing — yet great sleep can be hard to come by in a profession that requires long shifts at irregular intervals.
- Travel. Taking time off to experience a change of scenery can help nurses unwind and recharge. Traveling also can instill a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for nature, food, history, culture, social connection, and other things that make life enjoyable.
- Creative expression. Engaging in artistic endeavors such as poetry, music, painting, storytelling, theater, and dance enables people to express and process emotions. To stave off burnout, nurses can pursue creative activities that honor their feelings (ranging from the grief of losing a patient to celebrating the healthy birth of a new baby).
- Exercise. Science shows that exercise enables the body to process stress, improving health and mood. Physical activity can take many forms, such as yoga, running, swimming, or muscle tensing/relaxing techniques. Nurses should choose the type of physical activity that works best for them.
- Social connection. Nurses can blow off steam with colleagues by laughing, hugging, and engaging in casual conversation. These social activities can contribute to a positive work environment for nurses. At a physiological level, social affirmation has been shown to reduce blood pressure and improve support systems that care professionals need to do their jobs well.
- Meditation. Simple, practical exercises for deep breathing can produce feelings of calm. Deep breathing techniques, from simple techniques to more complex breathing exercises developed in a meditation practice, can recenter busy nurses and promote feelings of calm.
Self-Care Advice for Nurses
Self-care for nurses is an ongoing practice. Nurses should work toward turning self-care activities into habits, building self-care into daily life when possible.
Many nurses may encounter obstacles when trying to practice self-care. The following tips can help them overcome common challenges in this aspect of their lives:
- Vary self-care activities. Different self-care techniques may be more effective in different contexts. By trying multiple self-care activities, nurses can develop a wide range of tools for managing stress and improving health and well-being.
- Make a plan. Nurses should develop a plan for improving their self-care practice, paying attention to their own stressors, triggers, and symptoms.
- Develop self-compassion. Self-compassion decreases depression, stress, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout in care professionals, including nurses.
- Ask for help. Knowing when to seek professional help is important, especially for nurses who routinely struggle to care for themselves. Nurses in need should seek support from colleagues, mentors and supervisors, and professional counselors and therapists when they cannot conduct self-care.
Advocate: When Self-Care Is Not Enough
Sometimes the most effective precursor to self-care is self-advocacy. Like other professions, nursing has systemic issues that routinely impact nurse well-being.
Fair nurse scheduling refers to the way nurse managers schedule shifts. During nursing shortages, unhealthy and unsustainable scheduling patterns can emerge, like scheduling nurses to work consecutive shifts without rest.
By advocating for fair nurse scheduling, professionals can structure their schedules in a way that helps them achieve a better work-life balance — which mutually benefits nurses and the health care organizations they work for.
Pursue a Lasting Career in Nursing
Self-care for nurses is preventive care. By taking care of themselves with compassion and healthy coping activities, nurses are better equipped to provide quality care to their patients and enjoy a rewarding career for many years to come.
Are you ready to take your nursing career to a new level? Learn more about Bradley University’s online Master of Science in Nursing — Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) program. Explore how the fully online program can expand your expertise in advanced nursing theory, patient-centered care, and evidence-based practice.
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American Nurse Journal, “An Epidemic Amidst a Pandemic: A Call for Self-Care for Nurses”
American Nurse Journal, “Self-Care: An Overutilized Word but an Underutilized Concept”
Healthcare Dive, “1 Year of COVID-19 Has Changed What It’s Like to Work in Healthcare”
Los Angeles Times, “COVID Surge, Nurse Burnout Make Mess Out of Hospital Staffing”
NPR, “Health Workers Know What Good Care Is. Pandemic Burnout Is Getting in the Way”
VOX, “Why the US Nursing Crisis Is Getting Worse”
World Health Organization, “WHO Guideline on Self-Care Interventions for Health and Well-Being”