Newly qualified nurses

These 3 lessons helped me survive and grow as a newly qualified nurse

One nurse draws on personal experience to offer new registrants advice in their first job

One nurse draws on personal experience to offer new registrants advice in their first job

Picture: iStock

When I started in my first staff nurse role in October 2018, I soon realised that being a newly qualified nurse was tougher than I thought it would be.

To prepare for my role on a paediatric intensive care unit (PICU), I spent the summer reading everything I could get my hands on. Critical care nurses need to know their stuff, I thought, so I read and re-read topics such as acid-based balance, the cardiac system and shock, to get me up to speed.

My first shift as a nurse did not go as smoothly as I’d hoped

On the day of my first shift, I was fired up and ready to go. But could I remember any of what I had read? Not really. I was disappointed in myself, and to make matters worse, I felt tired – I’d spent so much time studying that I hadn’t rested as well as I could have.

Lesson 1: No one expects you to know everything

While I was lucky to have a mandatory week of annual leave not long after I started, I realised my first and biggest lesson: you are not expected to know everything.

My three years at university gave me a good grounding and laid the foundations for my nursing career, but as a newly qualified nurse I couldn’t possibly know as much as those with more experience.

Be encouraged by what you do know, like how to keep patients safe

What I feel we should all know, however, is how to keep our patients safe and how to deliver the fundamentals of nursing care.

The safety checks we perform at the beginning of every shift on PICU are vital. Each nurse checks that the oxygen and suction in their bed spaces are working properly, and that there is a spare oxygen cylinder.

‘As a cohort of new starters we shared questions we didn’t want to ask our mentors and talked about our struggles because we were all in it together’

We check the ventilation settings and alarm limits on the monitors, as well as the equipment we have in our bed space, including the ‘bagging circuit’ and airway adjuncts such as appropriate-size masks and oropharyngeal airways.

This is the equipment we will need if a patient suddenly deteriorates, so it is vital these checks are carried out. Even if you don’t know how to use all the equipment, knowing it is there and in good working order means you are taking the necessary steps to keep your patients safe.

Being one of many new starters was helpful and reassuring

I was lucky to be part of a big cohort of new starters. Although we were from different universities, we gelled well and became a huge support network for each other; we shared questions we didn’t want to ask our mentors and talked about what we were struggling with because we were all in it together.

Lesson 2: Build a support network – you’re going to need it

This is where the second lesson comes in – build networks. Having a good support network is vital as a newly qualified nurse because it’s important to have people who know what you are going through. We learned together, ranted together and supported each other through the tough times.

Having a supportive network, including friends and family, will also enhance your mental well-being and help you feel less alone.

From nursing student to registrant – look how far you’ve come

If you do have concerns, talk to people in your networks, your mentors and your preceptors. I like to think people want to build you up and give you honest feedback about how they feel you are developing, but it is important to give yourself a break and look at how far you’ve come.

Lesson 3: Last but not least… look after yourself

The third lesson I learned – to look after yourself – is perhaps the most important. There has been a lot of talk recently about looking after yourself because self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

On my unit, taking a week off in our first 12 weeks was mandatory. This is because the stress of being a newly qualified nurse is real, with different pressures to those experienced by nursing students.

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I had to learn not to take these pressures home. In my first few weeks and months, I’d be lying in bed after a shift going over every decision I'd made, but now that I have a little more experience, this doesn’t happen as much.

In your first few months after qualifying, it is so important that you learn to switch off. Reflection is a good thing but obsessing over every decision is exhausting and increases your risk of burn out.

You’ve learned so much already, and there’s so much more to come

Learning not to doubt yourself is tough, but you have all your training as a nursing student under your belt and you will learn more and more each day. So don’t worry, you’ve got this.

Dann Gooding is a staff nurse on the paediatric intensive care unit at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

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