Nurses play a central role in the delivery of patient care, research, education, public health and a myriad of other areas.
As the largest percentage of the healthcare workforce in most countries, the entire system would literally cease to function without nurses.
Why, then, are nursing professionals so quick to say, “Oh, I’m just a nurse,” when asked what they do for a living or what their job is like? What makes nurses so ready to diminish themselves, and how can we empower nurses to think differently about their importance?
Never Say “Just”
When the word “just” is placed before “nurse”, the perceived meaning relates to the word “only”. Asked how they contributed to the success of a patient’s care, a nurse might say, “I’m only the nurse; the doctor really did the important things,” or, “The surgeon was the key player; I’m just the nurse who assists her.”
When a nurse says they’re “just” a nurse, they’re insinuating that their contributions are unimportant. This form of self-deprecation does nothing to keep nurses’ worth in plain view, and likewise, communicates that nurses themselves place little value on their own work.
If a patient’s family told the nurse that the nurse’s aide had done so much for him, would the nurse say to the family, “Oh, she’s just an aide”? Of course not. The nurse would sing the aide’s praises.
A pediatrician isn’t “just” a family physician when compared to a surgeon, and an orthopedic surgeon isn’t “just” an ortho when compared to a brain surgeon.
Each individual has a key role to play, and diminishing one in contrast to the other serves nobody.
Pushing Back Against “Just” Being a Nurse
For several centuries, nurses were seen as handmaidens to all-powerful doctors. Even though Florence Nightingale, the godmother of modern nursing, made massive contributions (she founded the science of biostatistics and saved hundreds - if not thousands - of lives by ushering in the practice of improved sanitation and hygiene for the prevention of infection), nurses remained undervalued non-professionals without a sense of personal agency.
Well into the mid-20th century, nursing was often referred to as ‘women’s work’ or ‘pink collar’ in nature. With more men slowly but surely entering the profession (admittedly, still remaining a fairly low percentage of the nursing workforce in most countries), their presence has contributed to tipping the scales away from nursing being seen as solely feminine.
In the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminism empowered women to see themselves in a new light, verbalise their contributions and worth, and refuse to accept patriarchal views of who they were and why they mattered.
As nurses developed their own scientific body of evidence through nurse-led research, increased autonomy, higher-level education, nursing specialisations and a place at the table of the healthcare conversation, their work started to be taken more seriously and their participation increasingly welcomed.
In light of these and other developments, being “just” a nurse is no longer an option.
Reprogramming Nurses’ View of Themselves
One strategy for reprogramming nurses’ habits of viewing themselves negatively is instilling professional self-esteem throughout the educational process. We can teach students their profession’s history, demonstrate nursing’s growth and highlight the ways in which nurses’ presences are crucial to the success of many endeavours.
Nurse researchers can dig deep into the data that elucidates how nurses see themselves and show nurses that their low self-esteem serves no real purpose other than devaluing who nurses are and their importance to society.
Nurse authors, bloggers, podcasters, and social media influencers can propagate messages that underscore nurses’ contributions, and nursing leaders can lead by example by speaking highly of their own work and that of the profession at large.
Individual nurses can praise one another, say no to bullying and incivility between teammates, and help to instil a sense of pride in themselves and their colleagues. They can also assertively speak out when others belittle nurses without cause.
It all begins with one nurse and how they view themselves and their colleagues.
As the positive self-talk and self-image of nurses expand like ripples in a pond, more nurses will realize that saying they are “just” a nurse is both counter-productive and needless.
Nursing is a highly valued profession that enjoys high levels of trust by the public. Nurses should not squander their stature as arbiters of health and well-being by demeaning themselves or one another. Nurses’ importance is unchallenged in the 21st century, and now is the time for the word “just” to be removed from the lexicon, leaving “I’m a nurse” as a simple yet powerful declaration of pride and self-worth.