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Avoid burnout: self-care strategies for nurses

Nursing has been voted the most trusted profession for the past 22 years, but the impact of this high expectation often leads to stress and burnout.

Nurses are at a higher risk of burnout out than other professions for many reasons, including high-stress work environments, shift work and long hours, understaffing, low pay scales, high responsibility and a lack of support from health care teams.

Burnout is more than work-related stress that results in a bad day. Burnout is a complete lack of physical and mental energy after a period of chronic, job-related stress.

Robbie Bedbrook, general practice and sexual health nurse, runs workshops in the Australian health care space on self-care and burnout, and advocates for nurses to protect their mental wellbeing.

The important safeguards against stress and burnout, said Mr Bedbrook, include seeking help, using entitlements, avoiding multitasking, making lifestyle adjustments and tending to self-care.
Seek help and find a support network

“If you’re already feeling the weight of burnout or compassion fatigue, it's important to seek help for this.

“Our mental wellbeing is one of our most precious resources as a nurse!

“A great place to start is 'Nurse and Midwife Support', a dedicated phone-service for nurses and midwives who need help.

“It is staffed by nurses and midwives trained in counselling and is completely anonymous.

“Another great option is to see your GP, who should provide some counselling and potentially a Mental Health Care Plan to see a psychologist. This tip can also be a preventative one to teach you strategies to cope!”

Use your entitlements

It’s important to take annual leave, RDOs, sick-days, and meal breaks.

“These are all in place to give us space to recharge and protect our physical and mental health, so use them!

“You are not a selfish healthcare worker if you take your breaks or choose not to accept that over time; that might be the culture of your workplace but working yourself to burnout has nothing to do with being a nurse. 

“Moreover, these entitlements were hard-earned by the giants of nursing who came before us, and we should honour them by using them!”

Avoid multitasking and practice mindfulness at work

Trying to focus on more than a few tasks at a time overwhelms the brain, leads to anxiety and reduces performance, said Mr Bedbrook.

“Learn about mindfulness and try to integrate this philosophy into your practice by doing one thing at a time.

“If you're performing a clinical task, that's your focus. If you're administering medications, don't take phone calls or perform handover or provide counselling or mobilise patients.

“Not only will this allow the brain to perform at its best, but it also helps us find enjoyment in work. If it's not an emergency it's okay to say to someone, 'I'll get to that later.’”

Consider what you're eating and exercise

Foods high in processed sugar can lead to anxiety and excessive tiredness, all which contribute to burnout.

“Try to pack snacks for your shift that are low in processed sugar and high in nutrients, such as fruit, home-made bliss balls and nuts.

“Activity and exercise are also wonderful ways to reduce stress, practice mindfulness and improve physical and mental health.

“A wonderful place to find motivation and structure is the Australian College of Nursing's Nurse Strong campaign!”

Have compassion for yourself

Empathy is the cornerstone of nursing, but it is active work that takes a toll.

“Talk to yourself the way you talk to others and care for yourself the way you provide care for others.

“Self-care is individual. It's not a checklist that looks good on social media. Find the activities that recharge you, and this won't be the same for everyone,” said Mr Bedbrook. 

Jade Stewart, a third-year registered nurse, recognised early that the demands of nursing were negatively impacting her wellbeing.

“12-hour shifts and successive night duty were taking its toll as a ward nurse.

“As a result, I opted out of full-time hospital work.

“After leaving a full-time hospital-based roster, I initially picked up work with an agency but found that stressed me out even more.

“I now get shifts through uPaged and know when and where I work, which has reduced my stress significantly.

“I realised pretty quickly that as nurses, we care, sometimes a little too much, about our patients, and it's really easy to take all the work and patient troubles home.

“The downside of that is that we carry a bit of a burden ourselves.

“I have a great nursing mentor who told me that if I looked after myself first, I'd be able to take better care of my patients.”

Taking breaks, practising mindfulness and eating well are important self-care strategies for Ms Stewart.

“On longer breaks, I go for a walk outside to get some fresh air and sunshine and drink water. 

“Reflection has been a great self-care practice for me, especially after a traumatic event on the ward, sharing that experience with the team has proven to be a huge help.

“I avoid processed sugar, so I don't get any sugar lows, limit my caffeine intake and never have any six hours before I intend to sleep.

“If I'm working nights, rather than focusing on a perceived inability to fall asleep, I focus on what time I'm going to wake up and how fantastic I'll feel when I do.

“Inevitably, I wake up feeling great a minute or two before my alarm goes off.

“I always make sure I shower as soon as I get home from a shift.

“Psychologically it's like washing off the stress of the shift, and it helps me draw a line between when work ends, and home life starts.

“I actually visualise the thoughts of the day washing off.”

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.