Newly qualified nurses

My first year as a registered nurse: learning how to deal with mistakes

In the latest of her series of regular updates, RCNi nursing student of the year Zoe Butler discusses mistakes – how to deal with them and what to do to avoid them happening again

In the latest of her series of regular updates, RCNi nursing student of the year Zoe Butler discusses mistakes – how to deal with them and what to do to avoid them happening again

Zoe B Refelective journal©JH
Zoe Butler. Picture: John Houlihan

After finding my feet within my specialist area of trauma care, I am starting to realise that every patient comes with new complications and conditions that I have to learn about and understand.

I am feeling more comfortable with the processes and protocols that underpin nursing practices, and when I carry these out successfully another brick is added to my metaphorical wall of confidence.

But with each new patient comes new systems to learn, and when I have not quite hit the nail on the head or picked something up properly I can feel a little downhearted. After discussion with colleagues and mentors, however, I realise it is unrealistic of me to expect to get everything right while learning a new role.

These are critical times for my development and learning, and it is inevitable that mistakes will be made. The following points have helped me to cope better when I start to feel incompetent as a new learner.

Keep a reflective journal

We all have a bit of the perfectionist in us and just want to get things right. I often blame myself when things don’t go to plan, and go home with a head full of worries. But this creates an unhealthy imbalance between my headspace and work life. Using a reflective journal has helped – I write down any concerns I have after a shift, then add the actions I am going to take. I then close the book and let go.

Don’t hide from incidents, learn from them

We all want to appear capable and show we can deal with tough situations, so it can seem easier to ‘shut off’ and just keep going when times get tough. But taking this approach means you won’t learn from incidents or realise what you can do to prevent similar situations arising in the future. Seeking feedback from a senior member of staff, and speaking openly about your actions, will help guide your learning plans for the future.

Express your thoughts and emotions

When incidents happen it creates a mental minefield of emotions, and feelings of inadequacy can escalate that could affect patient care. Expressing these emotions during debriefs will help ensure they are acknowledged and addressed, and being on the same page with colleagues creates a more supportive environment and avoids a blame culture.

It’s better to hand things over than to do a task in a rush

This was my biggest learning curve. I started to realise that I have got into difficulties most often, or not done something right, when it is nearing handover time. Instead of following the philosophy of team working, I have sometimes rushed a task and not completed it properly. One example is completing admission protocols for patients. I needed to learn that it is okay to hand tasks over, and when the pressure is on it is better to hand over to someone with a fresh perspective than to rush and miss important information or details.


Guidelines for NursesZoe Butler is the winner of the Andrew Parker student nurse award at the 2017 RCNi Nurse Awards. After graduating from the University of Cumbria in September 2017, she now works as a staff nurse in orthopaedics.

The Andrew Parker Student Nurse Award is sponsored by Guidelines for Nurses.

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