How Nurses Can Avoid a Self-Care Deficit

Last Updated: 17 August 2023

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The nursing profession has always been focussed on helping and serving others. This has been part of the history and identity of the profession and its dedicated members.

However, nurses can be notoriously bad at taking care of themselves.

It’s important to acknowledge how important it is to be healthy and to practice diligent self-care in the midst of often hard work, long hours and job-related stress.

What is the nursing self-care deficit?

You can witness and experience a lot of trauma as a nurse.

Throughout a career that might span several decades or more, a nurse has the potential to experience significant mental distress. This can be via secondary trauma or spiritual crises related to constantly witnessing the suffering of others, or even due to the fear of physical harm (through on-the-job accidents and injuries, chemical exposure, workplace violence, etc.), especially when working with vulnerable patients.

It’s important to not shrug these off and let the trauma pass by. Without attention on your own wellbeing, it’s very easy to fall into burnout and forget all of the good things that make up the nursing profession. It’s easy to fall into a “self-care deficit” where you continually forget to acknowledge the challenges you’ve gone through and give yourself the requisite care.

While putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others has become somewhat of a tired cliché, the metaphor still rings true: you’re are more present and better at providing care when you pay closer attention to your own wellness and happiness.

Male nurse sitting by a windowsill looking stressed and tired

What are the steps to remedy this self-care deficit?

Step #1: Increased self-attention

Nurses are renowned for helping their neighbours, families, communities and society at large. They volunteer their time, donate money and support beloved causes. Nurses tend to be generous people.

Nurses are also highly trusted, meaning neighbours, friends and family members may often lean on them for advice and support.

But sometimes, you need to give yourself attention. And you shouldn’t feel guilty about this. You should be acknowledging that you also have needs and it’s not selfish to honour them.

Without practising self-protection and firm personal boundaries, a nurse can fall into a caregiver role in every aspect of their life, leaving little time for themselves. It’s important to remain connected to your wider network, of course, but don’t forget to remain connected to yourself and your own needs.

Step #2: Take action

After changing your mindset, it’s time to find activities that allow you to provide yourself with self-care and sustain a healthier, happier and more balanced life.

Here’s some activities you can utilise to find your individualised approach to self-care:

  • Take a serious self-assessment of one’s work-life balance and self-care practices
  • Eat well, hydrate and exercise regularly
  • Take time for personal pursuits, family, friends, fun and leisure
  • Focus on rest, renewal and rejuvenation in their many forms, including improving your sleep routine and taking time for meditation and mindfulness
  • Ensure you utilise your allocated leave, RDOs and meal breaks — don’t think it’s shameful to need to take time off
  • Have the personal boundaries to know when to say no when asked for help, support or to work an extra shift when you have no energy for it

The actions you take in relation to your own wellbeing, balance, happiness and health are individual, yet the bottom line is the same across the professional: give more time and space for one’s self.

A cappuccino, almond croissant and book lying on a table

Step #3: Remember it’s a work in progress

Self-care and personal wellness don’t happen in a vacuum, and life can sometimes get in the way.

Your life as a nurse is a work in progress, just like anyone else’s. There’s roadblocks and challenges every step of the way, and therefore viewing self-care on a continuum is a healthy way to look at it.

Some days may be easier for practising self-care than others. But if you’ve practiced self-care again and again, and are dedicated to your own wellness, you can easily refocus on yourself, even when things get complicated.

Nursing is a work of the heart that benefits not only the individual nurse, but also every person with whom they interact. In order for you to be your best, as a nurse and individual, it is essential you take time out for yourself.

A female nurse looking happily at a female elderly patient lying on her bed

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