Beating burnout

Three RCN members share their research, advice and innovations on how to overcome work-related stress and fatigue

'We need to know that we matter' 

Dr Hannah Andrews wrote her PhD thesis on self-care and self-compassion in nursing. She says there must be a change in the profession’s culture so staff give themselves permission to prioritise their own health  

How many times have you heard flight attendants say: “Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others?” It makes complete sense. So why do nursing staff find it difficult to care for themselves before and alongside caring for others? 

Understanding that we should direct care and compassion towards ourselves is a challenging idea. We only appear to consider and use self-care as a reactive way of coping. It’s not built into our work lives. Patients are always our priority, and while many of us enter the profession to care for others, our needs shouldn’t be sacrificed while we offer compassionate care.

Our nursing identity is important here. It’s more difficult to access self-care when we find it difficult to have a sense of ourselves outside nursing. 

We’re also more likely to be able to look after ourselves if we’re working in a stable or safe environment, or we feel safe within our work team. Sadly, there are many reasons why a lot of us might feel this is difficult in today’s challenging and ever-changing health care environments. 

So what can we do?

We need to give ourselves permission to proactively care for ourselves, or receive permission from someone else, such as our managers. If we do this, we’re more likely to experience a greater sense of wellbeing and to feel more equipped to manage the difficult emotions that come with our jobs.

This way of thinking needs to be embedded within nursing culture too, with permission to self-care and be self-compassionate being promoted early on in our careers.  

Our needs don’t need to be sacrificed for us to care for others

Newly registered nurses are seriously at risk of early career burnout at a time when we need them most. Therefore a module on self-care in the nursing curriculum and early key messages could help, so learning to look after themselves and being given permission to do so becomes part of their formal education. 

The NMC Code places a focus on caring for patients and being well enough to care for patients, but going forward we need policies and procedures in place that state self-care is not only acceptable but essential in a health care environment. Self-care needs to be a formal part of a nurses’ duty of care. And this should apply to the whole clinical team.

We need to know that we matter. Our needs don’t need to be sacrificed for us to care for others. 

Hannah has contributed to our self-care project and the RCN’s Healthy Workplace, Healthy You campaign. Read more about Hannah’s research.

Top tips for self-care 

Steph White is an emergency nurse in Kent. It wasn’t until she took time off recently that she realised she was suffering from burnout. She shares her advice for looking after yourself

Keep it healthy text

Exercise, consider your diet and stay hydrated. If you find it difficult to motivate yourself to exercise, do something you’ll enjoy that will get you moving – a walk in the park might be as helpful as a gym session. But remember a little bit of what you fancy is OK - just avoid the guilt afterwards.

Write down your worries text 
It can help you formulate a plan to deal with the issues.

Get the rest you need text

Not always easy but stress can get worse when sleep deprivation takes hold and your motivation will decrease if you feel tired and drained.

Approach social media with caution text

It’s great for keeping up to date but don’t worry unnecessarily about everyone else’s seemingly fabulous lives. Be happy for them but focus on you.

Get some you time text

You don’t need holiday plans to book some time off work. Spend time in your home and do something you love that you haven’t done for a while.

Take a break from negative people text

Instead find someone who will be a positive influence, whether they are someone you know personally or a positive role model in the public eye. Help to change your mindset by using positive words in your day-to-day language too.

Remember self-care text

Work on your self-image. Remember not everything is your fault.

Reach out text

Open up to a friend, spouse, family member, colleague, union rep, GP, or counsellor. Remember you are not alone.

Time for a change text

Ask yourself if it’s time to try something different. However much you love your work, it’s sometimes good to take some time out to get experience in another area and return when you’ve had a break.

Hollie’s anonymous online support for nursing staff

Nursing student Hollie Lawrence (pictured) is developing a trauma awareness app for health professionals

We all know it’s good to talk about the traumatic situations we’re regularly confronted with and thankfully most nurse managers stress the door is open for us to chat. While this is welcome, how we react to trauma differs from person to person and this might not be the best way for all of us to deal with these issues.

Many of us are simply not confident enough to always come forward if we’ve been affected by a situation at work. Speaking out can feel like a big thing to do with some people feeling scared of identifying they have a need.

Hollie Lawrence

That’s why a trauma awareness app could be so helpful. Staff could remain anonymous but still get speedy access to support for trauma and how best to cope with what they’re facing.

I’m now working on developing an app to do this after winning funding and business development mentoring in a university competition. I really hope it proves to be a way to remind people that however they’re feeling, they’re not alone and their life and views matter.

Staff can remain anonymous but still get speedy access to support

I’ve also set up a website and a private Facebook group called ProVent, which already has 850 followers. It’s a place for health care staff and students to express, explore and educate each other about stress-related illness and burnout. It’s also a platform for health care-related questions, videos and relevant literature. 

I know there’s a need for this kind of site because some student nurses have already told me the support they’ve received from ProVent has help keep them in nursing. 

Hollie is developing the app after winning £5,000 in funding in an Anglia Ruskin University competition. She also won three days of business mentoring in Spain, and a one-year membership of the Future Business Centre by Allia, where she is working with their team to help develop the app.

Further information 

The RCN campaign, Healthy Workplace, Healthy You, supports nursing professionals to lead healthy lifestyles so they can maintain both physical and mental wellbeing. You can also contact RCN Direct for advice. 

Words by Sharon Palfrey. Pictures by Warren Page.

Read next...