Career advice

Searching for meaning

The emotional toll of nursing can have a numbing effect, but it can also leave you searching for answers to the big issues in life.

The emotional toll of nursing can have a numbing effect, but it can also leave you searching for answers to the big issues in life


Hospital chaplains are there to support staff as well as patients. Picture: Alamy 

Picture the scene, you are out for a drink with some of your non-nursing friends and they start to moan about their bad days at work. Do you want to scream (Iet’s face it, how hard can office life really be?) then immediately berate yourself for lack of compassion? Well, rest assured you are not alone.

Despite all the media reports and well-intentioned TV dramas, it’s hard for anyone outside of health care to imagine what front line nursing actually entails. You see humanity at its rawest – day in day out. Life, death, tragedy are all acted out in front of you.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that you will at times feel overwhelmed or find yourself wondering what all this pain and effort in life is for. 

In your professional capacity you will be used to listening to others in crisis. But where do you go when it is a struggle to see what is meaningful in life?

What’s the point?

Patients’ circumstances often lead them on a search for a deeper understanding of their existence, but such reflections are not limited to those experiencing illness or loss. As a nurse, you are not granted immunity from life’s big questions, quite the contrary. As Rachel Remen, director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, so elegantly said: ‘The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.’

Of course, the pace and intensity of most healthcare settings means that there is little time for breaks let alone existential discussions with colleagues. Switching off from a hectic shift can be difficult enough but if you are left searching for some sort of meaning to all that you have witnessed you can end up feeling disillusioned and lonely.

Spiritual soul-searching

If you are at a point in your life where you want to explore what ‘it’ is all about there are different avenues of support available to you both in and out of work, such as counselling, meditation or other alternative therapies.

Depending on the service you work in, you may also have access to a chaplaincy team as their role is to support staff as well as patients. Don’t let your perception of what a hospital chaplain is stop you: If you are looking for new direction in life, you may need to be prepared to try something different.

Hospital chaplains are not there to preach to you or guide you in a particular religion. Instead, their role is to offer you space for reflection as well as confidential and non-judgmental pastoral support. This means you can continue to provide holistic care to patients while maintaining your own well-being.


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

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