Resilience is not endurance

Several years ago, I was going through a really tough time at work and one of my colleagues commented “you are one of the most resilient people I know”. It was the first time that I had this nagging feeling that being resilient wasn’t entirely a good thing.

I, like many of my colleagues, confused resilience with endurance. Resilient nurses kept on working in persistently challenging situations in spite of feeling exhausted. Resilient nurses didn’t complain, didn’t cry when a patient died, didn’t take mental health days, didn’t make mistakes, and bounced back in spite of physicians or patients yelling at them. I plowed through tough times without taking a break until I was worn out, used up, and exhausted.

And I kept going.

It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand that none of that was resilience. All of that was endurance coupled with denying my own emotions and experiences. It was the platform for burnout. Years later I came to understand that resilience comes from stepping back, resting, recovering, and rejuvenating oneself. Resilience is using your voice to stand up for what is right, to address the things that need to change, and having the strength to say, “I am not at my best today” or “I need help” or “I need a break”. Without it, burnout among nurses will continue to affect the very fabric of our profession.

Of course, we all experience legitimately tough times when we must rally and persist. Farmers need to harvest their fields when the crops are ripe, new mothers need to feed their babies around the clock, and we, as health care workers, need to respond to a surge in patients with the coronavirus.

While pushing through tough times is an admirable trait, we need to recognize that it isn’t sustainable. It must be coupled with restorative rest – the farmer celebrates with a harvest festival and then rests through the winter, the new mother learns to catnap when the baby sleeps, and we need to rest and restore ourselves while caring for our patients and after what we’ve been through the past two years.

One of our biggest lessons from the pandemic may not be how we adapted and cared for our patients, but how we adapted and cared for ourselves and each other. We learned that we do not have to be “ok” all of the time. We learned how to intervene with ourselves and each other before our stress reaction became a stress injury or illness. We learned to distinguish endurance from real resilience.  

If I can think of a lesson that I would like to impart upon my colleagues, whether they are a novice nurse starting in their practice or a seasoned nurse weighing whether to leave the profession, it’s this: Don’t glorify resilience, instead honor restoration.

Today, take a few one-minute restorative breaks throughout the day.

Today, do one thing that allows you to rest and recover.

Today, do one thing that brings you joy and fulfillment.

If anyone deserves rest and restoration, it’s you.

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