Career advice

Attempting behaviour change: the good, the bad and the barriers in between

Showing a degree of vulnerability when discussing healthy behaviours with your patients can make you appear more approachable, says health coach Mandy Day-Calder. 
Obesity_clinic_nurse-SPL.jpg

Showing a degree of vulnerability when discussing healthy behaviours with your patients can make you appear more approachable, says health coach Mandy Day-Calder

Nurses are a wise group, but we aren't always smart enough to look after ourselves properly. Yes, we have the knowledge, and we know that if we practised what we preached we could be healthier, but sometimes life just isn't that simple.

Before you stop reading, this isn't another lecture on eating healthily, drinking less alcohol, exercising more or giving up smoking. This article is a BMI and nicotine replacement-free zone.

Assuming you know what you need to do to be healthy, let's look at how you can use your experiences of attempting behaviour change the good, the

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Showing a degree of vulnerability when discussing healthy behaviours with your patients can make you appear more approachable, says health coach Mandy Day-Calder


A nurse's role is to advise and treat a patient, and sometimes a sensitive
approach is needed. Picture: Science Photo Library 

Nurses are a wise group, but we aren't always smart enough to look after ourselves properly. Yes, we have the knowledge, and we know that if we practised what we preached we could be healthier, but sometimes life just isn't that simple.

Before you stop reading, this isn't another lecture on eating healthily, drinking less alcohol, exercising more or giving up smoking. This article is a BMI and nicotine replacement-free zone.

Assuming you know what you need to do to be healthy, let's look at how you can use your experiences of attempting behaviour change – the good, the bad and the barriers in between – to facilitate more meaningful conversations with patients. 

Professional respect 

A 2016 survey of more than 1,000 British adults carried out by market research company Ipsos Mori found that nursing is the most trusted profession in the UK, with 93% of people saying they believe in nurse integrity. 

Regardless of what size you are or how much you exercise, it seems that if you are a registered nurse, the majority of the public respect you and will look to you for advice. 

When it comes to health behaviour change, this can lead to emotive discussions. For example, is it right for nurses who smoke to advise patients on smoking cessation? Can obese or overweight nurses give nutrition advice? Rather than focusing on the moralities of such debates, consider your role as a nurse: you advise, counsel and treat, and above all, you care. 

As laid out in the Nursing and Midwifery Council code, you have a duty to act with honesty and integrity at all times. But when it comes to conversations you have had with patients about body weight, smoking and exercise, how often have you used an approach that is sympathetic and sincere? Could saying to a patient, 'I get it, I understand how hard this is', change the content and the manner of your interaction?

Showing vulnerability

A trusting nurse-patient relationship relies on maintaining professional boundaries, but this does not mean you have to hide behind the façade that a uniform can provide. Instead of struggling with feelings of hypocrisy, and adopting a 'them and us' approach to your patients, perhaps the truly honest thing is to admit that you, like all nurses, are human, and at times you too can struggle with unhealthy habits and behaviours.

Showing a degree of vulnerability can make you appear more approachable to your patients, but the trick is to get the balance right. Your role is not to offload to your patients about the last diet you tried or your latest exercise regime, but to show empathy and understanding. 

If this is done in a sensitive and informed way, it can help motivate your patients to make meaningful plans and healthy goals. You never know, it might even inspire you to do the same – not that I'm nagging, of course. 


Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance writer and life/health coach 

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