Career advice

How nurses can help colleagues during real-life dramas

Providing the right support for a fellow nurse who is struggling can be a difficult balance, but just listening is a good start

Providing the right support for a fellow nurse who is struggling can be a difficult balance, but just listening is a good start


Picture: iStock

After years of working in healthcare, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my guilty pleasure hasn’t changed – I still love a good medical drama. 

Despite knowing that facts and procedures are often on the edge of what is considered ‘artistic licence’, rarely a week goes by without me tuning in. 

One aspect I particularly enjoy is that when a colleague has a problem, the whole team immediately rallies round. Regardless of the mayhem going on in these fictitious hospitals, all the nurses and doctors seem like one big family.  

But we all know that real life is not that simple.

Under pressure

No matter how long the shift, there never seems to be enough time and, unlike on television, if a fellow nurse is struggling there is no magic ‘pause’ button that allows you to suddenly switch your focus. 

Instead, you may find yourself pulled between the needs of your patients and your colleagues. If you feel responsible for both, anxiety can easily build. 

The 2017 NHS Staff Survey revealed that more than a third of the 485,000 staff who responded had experienced work-related stress in the previous year. 

More than half of respondents also said they had attended work in the previous three months despite feeling unwell, because they felt pressure from their manager, colleagues or themselves to do so. 

It is not difficult to see how, within any nursing team, someone may be struggling to cope. 

Work within your professional boundaries

Nurses have a duty to support colleagues who are encountering health or performance problems, in line with the Nursing and Midwifery Council code. But you must also make sure you are not compromising public safety or your own well-being. 

If a colleague in need of support approaches you during a busy shift, finding a healthy balance can be tricky. It can also be difficult if someone who is usually strong and capable seems vulnerable, and it can be frustrating, especially if you feel they aren’t able to ‘pull their weight’. 

Even if you are friends with your colleagues and socialise when off duty, it’s important to remember that you must work within your professional boundaries when on shift. This doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to your team mates, or approach them if you are looking for support yourself, but you need to keep in mind what your role is. 

While you can offer a listening ear or an extra pair of hands, you can’t take on the role of a counsellor or therapist.

Support at work: three things to remember

Be authentic: People usually only approach others who they trust, so honour this with honesty. If you have time to chat then do, but it is also okay to be truthful if you don’t have time, provided you do this kindly and maybe suggest a time when you are free. 

Show respect: When you can spend time with your colleague, be fully there for them. This may mean removing yourselves from the rush of the work environment. Feeling fully listened to for a few minutes can be of more benefit that being half-listened to for longer. 

Know your limits: Be clear about how much support you can offer. This will depend on how you are feeling, as well as how much time you have. Pay attention to your own stress levels – if you feel your colleague needs more help than you can offer, suggest that they approach their line manager, occupational health department or GP. If you are worried for their safety or anyone else’s, speak to your manager without delay.


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

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