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Faith and spirituality: how to remain professional

Some patients value the opportunity to discuss their faith. For others, any mention of spirituality is an unwarranted intrusion.

Some patients value the opportunity to discuss their faith. For others, any mention of spirituality is an unwarranted intrusion


Avoid assumptions about faith; if a patient is wearing a cross or reading a bible, it doesn’t
necessarily mean they want to discuss their faith. Picture: iStock

When facing ill-health, it is common for people to take strength from their religious or spiritual beliefs, or to question their faith.

Spirituality can boost patients’ well-being, but you have a duty to remain professional and respect nurse-patient boundaries. The NMC code is clear in its guidance: you must not express your personal beliefs inappropriately or impose them on anyone in your care.

Follow the patient’s lead

Despite the prime minister recently stating that ‘Christians should not be afraid of speaking freely about their faith at work’, this freedom is not appropriate in a healthcare setting, regardless of the religion or spiritual faith you follow. Your role is to be non-judgemental and to empower your patients, and at times this may involve being with patients as they explore deeper dimensions of their lives.

Some patients will have a strong religious faith or spiritual belief, while others will not place much importance on this aspect of life. The same is also true of nursing teams. It can be a delicate balance to give patients space to explore their spirituality. To avoid getting into difficulties, focus fully on your patients and always let them initiate any discussion.

Be self-aware

To be able to engage with patients on any spiritual level, you need to have a good insight into your own belief system and any pre-conceived ideas you have of others. Most of us have a set of deeply-held values, often formed as a child. If you develop your self-awareness you will be able to put aside your own beliefs and concentrate on your patients.

  • Be careful not to act on assumptions. If a patient is wearing a cross or reading a bible, this doesn’t necessarily mean they want to discuss their faith with you.
  • Don’t have an agenda. Listen to your patients and observe cues and body language. Always let your patients take the lead in conversations about faith. As a nurse you are in a position of relative power, avoid using this power to influence patients.
  • Watch your language. Expressions such as ‘Oh my God!’ or ‘God bless you’ can be offensive to some people, or make some feel uncomfortable.
  • As long as you feel comfortable, it is acceptable to sit with a patient during an act of worship. However, it is not your role to initiate this. If your patient is seeking more formal spiritual guidance, ask if they would like to speak to someone else, such as a chaplain or counsellor.
  • If you feel out of your depth at any time speak to your line manager or a senior colleague.
  • Consider writing a reflective account about any challenging conversations. This will help you think about your input and how you could manage future discussions differently.

The RCN’s spirituality in nursing care: a pocket guide is available to download here 


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

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