Career advice

Picking up the pieces after you make a mistake

All nurses dread making an error, but if it does happen, there are things you can do to rebuild your confidence and reduce the risk of future mistakes.

All nurses dread making an error, but if it does happen, there are things you can do to rebuild your confidence and reduce the risk of future mistakes


If you make a mistake at work, take responsibility for your actions and avoid
blaming others or getting defensive. Picture: iStock

Irrespective of whether a patient has or could be harmed by your error, the first thing to do is be honest and admit what’s happened. Not only is this professionally the correct thing to do, but if you try to cover up a mistake or keep it a secret, the event will snowball in your mind. This will only add to the anxiety you are feeling and could put you at greater risk of making further errors.

Usually you will have to report the incident to your ward manager, but you may also have to speak to your colleagues as well as any patients or relatives involved. Try to stick to the facts, take responsibility for your actions and avoid blaming others or getting defensive. Nobody enjoys admitting to mistakes, but going through the details with someone else can help to relieve some of the pressure you are feeling inside.

Positive steps forward

Be proactive: recognise and highlight any learning or support issues and make action plans for these. For example, do you need to refresh any clinical skills or reassess your competencies?

Reflect: at first it is likely that you will spend time ruminating over what happened and all the possible ‘what if’s.’ However, constantly going over things in your mind can lead to increased anxiety and low mood. Instead, try to take a step back and think about what you could have done differently and what you have learned. How will you improve your practice in future? Sometimes talking it through with a trusted colleague can give you a more objective view.

Don’t isolate yourself: it’s natural to experience a wide range of emotions, including guilt (especially if a patient was involved), anger, fear and humiliation. Try not to bottle these feelings up. Talk to your colleagues, family or friends and seek formal support if you feel you are struggling. 

Relax: obviously you want to make sure you don’t make another mistake, but try to avoid making this the sole focus of your attention. Balance this with thinking about all the people you have cared for safely and compassionately. Recognise that it may take time to build up trust again, in others and in yourself.

Move on: don’t let this mistake define you as a nurse. As hard as it is, you need to accept that you are fallible. Try to avoid beating yourself up. Instead, learn from this incident and forgive yourself.

Respect the Code: don’t give in to the pressure to put speed over safety. Work at the pace that is right for you to nurse safely and competently. You are accountable for your actions, not the wider state of the NHS.


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

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