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How common is it for students to feel anxious about placements?

Very, says Clare Churcher, a senior lecturer in adult nursing at the University of South Wales. “Often it’s because you don’t know what to expect,” she says. 

Anxieties centre around everything being new, says Suzanne Davies, who recently completed her adult nursing degree at Edge Hill University. “It’s a new ward and different ways of working,” she says. “Sometimes it can be another trust too, which has its own values that you need to understand.” 

It might also be difficult hearing other students’ experiences of a placement, especially if they’ve not enjoyed it. “You might think it’s going to be the same for you,” says Clare. The reverse can be true too, with students assuming a placement will be brilliant because others have said so, then finding their high expectations aren’t fulfilled. 

“I remind students that every experience is different,” says Clare. “Another student may not have liked the placement, but you might.” 

What are others students worrying about?

“Are they going to like me?” is a frequent question, says Clare. “Another is: what if I do something wrong?” she says. She suggests visiting where you’ll be having the placement beforehand, if you can, so you can meet at least some of the team.  

Suzanne, who was chair of the RCN UK Students Committee in 2023 and is now a newly registered nurse, agrees. “I would usually ring or email the ward and introduce myself before a placement,” she says. “I’d talk about what I’d like to learn during the placement and ask if I could come and see them before starting, so I would know where everything was when I got there. 9 times out of 10 this approach goes down well. The only challenge can be trying to get in contact, because everyone is so busy.”  

How to manage placement anxiety

  • Avoid listening to others’ experiences of placements, if you can, says Clare Churcher, a senior lecturer in adult nursing. “Keep an open mind,” she advises.
  • Make sure you’re well prepared the night before, says newly registered nurse Suzanne Davies. “Get your uniforms washed and ready and make your lunch. I always carry a water bottle so I’m hydrated throughout the day.”
  • Chat to your lecturers about what to expect.
  • Take a notebook, so you can jot down questions or thoughts you might otherwise forget. “Don’t forget to take enough pens,” says Suzanne.
  • Remind yourself what you can and can’t do as a nursing student.
  • Be willing to share that you feel anxious, Suzanne suggests. “I’m always open and honest about it,” she says. “Staff are usually supportive and react well.”
  • If you come across a medication for the first time, ask the registered nurse you’re working with if you can take the leaflet with you. “It will give you lots of information and you can read it at your own pace,” says Clare.
  • Ask for feedback, says Suzanne. “Sometimes you just need validation that what you’re doing is right.”

Are some placements more anxiety-inducing than others?

"Anything you’ve never experienced beforehand can feel nerve-racking," says Clare. While this could be your first ever placement, “it might also be on a ward or setting you’d not anticipated, where you can feel like a fish out of water,” Clare says.

Find out as much as you can about that specialist area before your placement begins. “Have a look online and read some articles,” she says. “Try to find out what to expect. Nursing Standard is a useful source as it’s bite-sized and accessible to all levels," adds Clare.

It’s also worth reading up on commonly used medications, language (including abbreviations), and conditions you might encounter. “It gives you a little bit of insight into the patients you’ll be seeing,” Suzanne says. 

Are anxieties different for first, second and third-year students?

“I don’t think the anxiety ever completely goes away, but it does gradually subside,” says Clare. As a first-year student, you’re aware that people’s expectations of you will be quite low, she says. But once you reach your final year, there can be more pressure.

The third year also includes a management placement. “I think students can be less worried about this if they return to somewhere they know already,” says Clare.

What should you do if your anxiety isn’t going away?

If you’re on a placement and feel overwhelmed, ask for a 5-minute break, says Suzanne: “Take yourself out of the situation for a few minutes and go back when you feel you can cope.”

As a student, you’ll have lots of new experiences, including some that are difficult. “It’s important you have the opportunity for a debriefing,” says Suzanne. “You need that support so something doesn’t become an issue in the longer term. In my experience, this has usually been offered straightaway for students, as there’s a recognition it’s needed more than ever with the current stresses on the health service.” 

If you feel anxiety is taking over, talk to your personal tutor at the earliest point you can, Clare advises. “There’s lots of help available at your university,” she says. “But don’t wait until the placement has finished, because it’s too late to change things then.” 

Words by Lynne Pearce

Find out more

  • Find out what support the RCN can offer you as a student member.
  • Listen to RCN Magazine’s 3-part audio series just for students, Placements: A Student Survival Guide. Find out how to: prepare for placements, get the most out of them, and raise concerns during placements.

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