Looking after yourself

You’ll only be able to play your part in a health care team and help people to maintain good health if you look after your own health. Health care can be a tiring and stressful occupation, and your best defences against the unwanted effects of fatigue and stress are to keep yourself as physically and mentally fit as you can. That means paying ongoing attention to the following issues:

Eating well. Aim to have a balanced diet that provides all the nutrients you need (see the ‘Healthy eating plate’ at the bottom of the page). One of the ‘hazards’ of working in a health care team is that meal breaks can take place at unusual and unpredictable times. Some staff can find that when their break comes, it’s difficult for them to slow down and relax – as a result, food can be bolted down practically unnoticed, which isn’t good for digestion or for taste! Use your breaks wisely as a chance to take some time out from whatever pressures you’re under. Eat your meals slowly and enjoy them. You can either prepare your own food or use the facilities offered in your workplace – catering units in hospitals and clinics are now much more health-conscious in the food they provide for staff.

Taking part in some physical activity. The guidelines for adults in the UK state that we should take a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five times a week. Moderate physical activity means that you get warm, mildly out of breath and mildly sweaty – it doesn’t have to be intense. Brisk walking is widely regarded as excellent physical activity with clear health benefits. Also, remember that the 30 minutes does not have to be taken in a single go – you could, for instance, take two 15-minute brisk walks or cycle rides during the day to make up your 30 minutes. Depending on your job, your work might well involve a lot of activity. Caring for people often involves supporting them to move from lying or sitting positions to upright and it’s important for your own protection (and for the patient’s/client’s) that you know how to do this safely. Your employer is obliged to provide training on moving and handling for you – if this hasn’t been done, speak urgently to your manager or supervisor.

Resting well. Shift patterns can play havoc with people’s sleeping patterns, particularly if their rota involves night duty. If you’re in a job that involves shift work, you should be informed well in advance about which shifts you’ll be working. This will enable you to work out a plan that includes special time for family and friends, time for yourself, and time for rest and sleep. Getting to know your own rest and sleep requirements (some people seem to thrive on six hours sleep a night, but most of us need a minimum of eight) will help you develop a plan that works for you.

Moderating your alcohol and tobacco use. The Chief Medical Officer for England recommends that to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, men and women should not drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it’s best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days. If you have one or two heavy drinking episodes a week, you increase your risk of death from long-term illness and injuries. See: Latest UK alcohol unit guidance. The Drinking and You website provides very helpful information to help people remain within these guidelines. Smoking is not recommended under any circumstances. Smoking is, of course, harmful to health. The best plan for smokers is to stop, or at least reduce intake. For more information on smoking cessation, go to the NHS smoking cessation service. You might also want to have a look at the RCN guidance ‘Clearing the air 2. Smoking and tobacco control – an updated guide for nurses’.

To learn more about stress at work and for some tips on managing stress, see: Stress and you: A guide for nursing staff. This booklet provides advice on how you can reduce stress and manage your responses more effectively, and what to expect from your employer in terms of support. You can also learn more about healthy living at the NHS Choices ‘Live Well’ website, from which you can access healthy living information from all the UK countries.

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