How Travel Nurses Can Prioritize Their Mental Health

Although nursing is filled with many rewards, caring for people and dealing with hard-to-accept outcomes can negatively affect nurse mental health—whether you are a staff nurse or travel nurse who works temporary contracts.

“First and foremost, nurses are people, and all people deserve fulfilling and healthy lives,” said Tasha Holland-Kornegay, PhD, LCMHC, a mental health therapist, speaker and author of Here Take This Book, It’ll Make You Feel Better. “What makes mental health concerns in the medical field particularly important is the high-stakes environment. When nurses are burned out and depressed, for instance, their own mental health can affect the quality of care their patients receive.”

A 2021 study showed an association between nurses’ well-being and medication errors, added Sarah A. Delgado, MSN, RN, ACNP, a clinical practice specialist focusing on strategic advocacy at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).

How Stress Affects a Nurse’s Mental Health

Nurses work long and often intense hours.

“They are under continued physical and emotional stress to do the right thing, every time,” said

Toni von Wenckstern, MS, RN, vice president and chief nursing officer, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, Houston. “A mistake could cost a life. Many of their positions have a high degree of intensity, both mentally and physically. A healthy mind helps the nurses deal with [the] daily stressors, and the additional stress this profession brings with it.”

With the current nurse shortages, nurses may be working extra shifts or caring for additional patients.

Travel nurses fill some of those vacant positions but can face additional challenges as they adjust to new locations and unfamiliar hospitals and units, all while away from their normal support systems.

The American Nurses Foundation (ANF) Three-Year Annual Assessment Survey, to identify nurses’ mental health, reported in January 2023 that 64 percent of nurses indicated feeling stressed and 57 percent exhausted. Eighty-four percent reported feeling stressed or dealing with burnout.

“Prior to 2020, researchers had identified the negative impact of occupational stress on nurses, including a higher risk for mental health problems and higher rates of suicide,” Delgado said. “The pandemic magnified the pre-existing risks to nurses’ well-being, adding new stressors, and taking away some of our coping strategies, as we worried about the safety of gathering with friends and family.”

Delgado added, “A recent scoping review validates that nurses working during the pandemic experienced significant negative effects on their mental health, demonstrating the importance of providing them with access to resources.”

AACN, in partnership with other nursing organizations, launched the Well-Being Initiative to provide resources and support, Delgado said. The initiative includes an assessment tool to help nurses recognize and mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder, plus a myriad of tips for mental health aided by apps, podcasts and videos.

The ANF survey found nurses want more support from their employers. But that does not always happen, so nurses must take the initiative to protect and prioritize their own mental health.

“It’s a lot easier to change ourselves than the facilities we work in,” Holland-Kornegay said.

Three Ways Nurses Can Strengthen Their Mental Health

  1. Put yourself first

Positive nurse mental health depends on nurses putting themselves first, prioritizing and setting aside the time for self-care.

“It’s only by taking care of yourself that you can most effectively take care of your patients,” Holland-Kornegay said. That may include saying “no” to additional shifts or patients and drawing hard boundaries between work and personal life, she added.

Self-care “is something we all know but something that is incredibly hard to do especially as nurses who are so accustomed to caring for others,” said Bryan Sisk, Chief Nursing Executive at Memorial Hermann Health System. “But, I can’t overemphasize the importance of getting enough sleep, exercising when possible, connecting with friends and family outside of work and making sure you have someone you can talk to.”

Memorial Herrmann has created quiet rooms for nurses to step away and “Code Lilac” to call a team member to give the nurse a break to regain his or her center. The hospital also has started a nursing institute focused on nurses’ well-being.

“What we have found is that wellness has many definitions,” Sisk said. “It is highly personal and often falls into support needed in a few key categories: lifestyle management, physical health, nutrition, financial health, community and social well-being, career navigation, emotional support and spiritual health.

Holland-Kornegay also recommended that nurses find and create support networks in their facilities.

Some nurses may specifically choose the travel nursing lifestyle to enjoy more flexibility, financial benefits and a fresh perspective on their careers. Though long-time, supportive relationships are not as freely available, many facilities will have several travelers on site, and travel nurses can seek each other out to create a safe environment to support each other. 

  1. CARE for self

Susan Zimmerman, LMFT, founding partner of Mindful Assist Planning in Greater Minneapolis, suggested travel nurses do “an exercise using the acronym CARE to think through and journal about. They’re designed to take some moments of self-focus to gain compassion for their current journeys.”

CARE stands for:

  • Connect – with self each day by reflecting on your emotional and physical experiences.
  • Appreciate – express appreciation for the unique gifts you offer to others and to yourself.
  • Readiness – affirm your ability and readiness to manage situations that arise in your work.
  • Embrace – gratitude for people and experiences to connect to a positive spirit for your life.

Travel nurses can appreciate the chance to see and experience new things, while growing their self-confidence and ability to adapt.

  1. Seek appropriate help

While resilience and self-care can help nurses, sometimes talking with a therapist or psychologist can change perceptions and help the nurse develop new coping skills.

“We want our nurses to be more forthcoming with the fact that they may need help and again that ‘it is ok to not be ok,’” Sisk said. “As nursing leaders, we must get more dialed into this fact and do better in this space to allow our nurses the opportunity to speak up about how they are feeling and how we can help them with their mental health. They are too important to us and to our patients to not share how they are doing.”

von Wenckstern encourages nurses to reach out for professional help when needed. However, she recognizes that it’s hard for nurses to ask for help, believing they should be able to manage their feelings and cure themselves. Some are reluctant to share their feelings of stress or vulnerability, which they might view as a sign of weakness.

“I do think social media, COVID-19, and the many economic changes over the past years have made the conversation of stress in the workplace and mental health a more accepted conversation,” von Wenckstern added. “More nurses are asking for mental health benefits and having open conversations regarding stress in the workplace and burnout. I believe this is a very positive sign for nursing.”

Mental Health Support for Contract Nurses

AMN Healthcare offers mental health support to its travel nurses through its employee assistance program (EAP). Additionally, the clinical management team is available to talk through workplace issues and advocate for nurse travelers on assignment.

Mental health is an important part of a nurse’s overall health and wellness. Take steps now to develop coping skills, practice self-care and build resilience to enjoy all of the rewards travel nursing has to offer.

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