The Importance of Self-Care for Nurses

Each May marks the celebration of National Nurses Month, and the American Nurses Association has designated a theme for every week. The first week of the month is dedicated to an issue that should be deeply important to all nurses: self-care.

Nurses are consummate givers. Their entire job is focused on caring for patients and families who need them, but all that giving can take its toll. Many nurses don’t remember to take care of themselves, too.

“Self-care is important for nurses in the sense that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we don’t have the reserve to properly care for others,” said Jennifer Schoonmaker, RN, director of nursing at Mountainside Treatment Center, a nationally acclaimed alcohol and drug addiction treatment center with a holistic approach to wellness.

Why self-care is crucial for nurses

Now, more than ever, self-care for nurses is crucial, according to Emily Bombard, DNP, RN, CNL, CNE, a faculty member with Southern New Hampshire University. “For the mental, physical and emotional health of our nurses, self-care is more important than it ever has been in our lifetime,” she said.

In the best of times, nursing is a stressful profession, explained Bombard. But the recent COVID-19 pandemic also caused an exodus of nurses, which meant the remaining workforce had to shoulder an even heavier load and take on more responsibilities.

That caused burnout rates to spike among a nursing workforce that was already struggling with the effects of burnout. Not surprisingly, the incidence of nurse burnout, which is correlated with anxiety and depression, grew significantly during the pandemic, according to a 2020 study in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences. The study’s authors cautioned, “The mental health problems of nurses should not be underestimated.”

“The pandemic was, and remains, a huge weight on the scales of nursing,” said nurse practitioner and holistic health coach Jennifer May, MSN, CNP.

And the consequences of nurse burnout are significant. As a 2019 review of research on burnout among nurses noted, “For nurses, burnout reduces the ability to provide care.”

“And, as caregivers, we often put our own needs for homeostasis on the back burner until things are so out of balance that we just can't ignore it anymore,” said May. “We must balance it on the other side. Otherwise, we break!”

Enter self-care for nurses. Self-care can help you make sure that you’re meeting your own needs. It helps you reclaim some balance in your life. It can keep you from breaking. And, ultimately, it can help you be a better nurse.

How you can prioritize self-care as a nurse

Your specific needs should be your priority. You may want to start by taking stock of your needs and determine what you need to change first to improve your health and well-being.

“Start there. Start with one thing,” said May. “Build one self-care habit. Then add another one.”

She added, “I realize that self-care looks different for everyone, and I started a health coaching business to help other people find what works for them.

At times, it can be challenging to incorporate self-care into our daily routines, noted Schoonmaker. “It needs to be a choice we make each day and can be something as simple as reading a book or taking a walk,” she said.

The best way to make sure your self-care doesn’t fall off your radar? Put it on your calendar, says Kaelyn Hansen, RN, BSN, CEN, an emergency room nurse and integrative health coach. “I schedule it just like an appointment or errands I have to run because it reminds me that prioritizing my wellness is non-negotiable and that everything else in my life flows better when I am showing up well,” she said.

Healthy habits and self-care activities

Once you know what your priorities are, you can begin working on the changes that will help you thwart burnout and maintain a healthy sense of well-being.

For example, better stress management may be one of your top priorities in taking care of yourself. That can look different for different people, but a few possible strategies to consider include meditation, mindfulness breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, and regular exercise. It might be setting boundaries on your time, as Bombard suggested.

For May, the pandemic created an intense burnout that finally led her to begin prioritizing healthy habits. She began to eat a healthier diet and get more sleep. She began to prioritize family time and even moved across the country to be closer to extended family.

Hansen changed up her approach to self-care in recent years—and for her, that meant making changes at work.

“Instead of doing the little things like taking more ‘me time’ and exercise—those are still incredibly important—I had to go for more of the big things, like completely changing my work environment and opting for a department that offered better work–life balance,” she said.

The bottom line on self-care

Self-care is vital for nurses, but it does look a little different for everyone. The important thing is that you figure out what you need to do to take care of yourself—and then follow through.

Check with your employer, too. “The focus on self-care has changed in recent years, and employers are not only encouraging staff to practice self-care but also offering incentives and reimbursements to do so,” said Schoonmaker. NurseFinders, an AMN Healthcare company, offers a robust Employee Assistance Program.

For more inspiration, check out this short video of 10 Self-care Tips for Nurses.

Nursefinders, an AMN Healthcare company, offers flexible working options for nurses including per diem shifts and project-based assignments. Are you ready to work when you want, where you want? APPLY TODAY