Tips for emergency nurses on building resilience

Emergency care staff can protect themselves from burnout by building resilience against the daily trauma of their work.

Emergency care staff can protect themselves from burnout by building resilience against the daily trauma of their work

Even the busiest person can find 30 minutes to talk to a friend
Picture: iStock

Poor staff retention in emergency nursing is unsurprising given that nurses who work in emergency departments (EDs) can often experience compassion fatigue, burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder. Can a passion for a profession that involves so much illness, trauma and death be enough to sustain people through their working days?

Despite the many difficulties of the job, including the increasing complexity of patients’ conditions, new policies and political intervention, there is much to enjoy and feel proud of in emergency nursing. The challenge for emergency nurses (ENs) is to remain adaptable and resilient in the face of the changing work environment, and to maintain the passion that brought them to the job.

Long-term survival in a profession that requires physically and emotionally hard labour, working difficult shift patterns that bring constant mental challenges, and exposure to sadness and pain, requires skills that all ENs need to work to acquire. These skills do not simply develop with experience, but require a plan for well-being. ENs must engage in activities that refuel their own tank of resources, and they need to get to know how to care for themselves and their teams.

Recovering from events

Many nurses assume resilience is an ability to be unaffected by adverse experiences, but this more accurately describes the prelude to burnout. Resilience is an ability to bounce back or recover from events over time.

If you have experienced a haunting and frightening trauma, for example, resilience can describe the gradual way in which the memory of it becomes less intrusive. Over weeks, your sleep returns to normal and your heart stops racing when you return to the site of the trauma.

Resilience means still being affected by life and the things that happen around you, but at some point returning to whatever idea of ‘normal’ you had before the traumatic event. Experiencing a range of emotions during each day is normal; constant happiness is an unrealistic goal, while negative emotions protect us and ensure we are aware of our environment.

Well-being plan

Constructing a well-being plan for yourself takes discipline, curiosity and exploration. What works for one person may not work for another and you should find out for yourself what makes you happy. The kinds of tool you need in your well-being plan depend on what has depleted your energy, or caused you stress or distress.

The three foundations of well-being are nutrition, exercise and sleep. Ensuring good nutrition does not necessarily mean eating kale every breakfast, but ensuring your body is fuelled by something you like and is sustainable. For shift workers, ten hours' sleep a night is unrealistic, but taking naps on days off or sleeping in once a week may be easier to achieve. It is also important to fill your life with simple gestures of nurturing.

Even the busiest person can find 30 minutes to walk the dog, have a bath, talk to a friend or dance in the kitchen. Become mindful of how you spend your time, and try to build energy and well-being into your activities.

As we are committed to providing high-quality patient care, so we must be committed to our own well-being. The two have a strong correlation. Nurses who are mentally and physically well and happy at work are more likely to provide good care and keep patients safe. We need to care for ourselves so we can care for others.

Let 2017 be the year you make a commitment to yourself and others to build the healthiest and happiest you, and you will remember why you chose to work in this great profession. 

Find out more

Mental health and staff well-being in the emergency department – RCNi articles

About the author

Liz Crowe is an advanced clinician social worker in emergency medicine at Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, Brisbane, Australia. She is also a doctoral student at the School of Medicine, University of Queensland, where she is looking at risk and protective factors to build interventions for staff resilience

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