Maybe it’s because it’s January, but every day I seem to read another article or blog post about how to stay healthy and build resilience as a nurse. Between the recommendations to practice yoga (which I do and love by, the way), exercise regularly, eat a Mediterranean diet or a paleo diet or a high protein diet (which is it?), journal, meditate, spend time in nature, socialize with friends, volunteer… Well, I’m now completely stressed out and overwhelmed!
All in all, the answer is simple, really. It’s not about yoga or any of these other things. It’s about doing something—anything—where you disconnect from work. This disconnection allows for a whole life: one of robustly enjoying both work and time away from work. For those of us in leadership positions, the most important work we can do to support nurse well-being may very well be teaching our colleagues about the importance of disconnecting from work.
For a profession driven by the desire to make a difference for others and grounded in the assumptions of self-sacrifice, our most important work as leaders is to transform the culture to one in which nurse well-being is core. I’ve long envisioned the possibility of young people entering the profession because nursing is work where you can both make a difference and be among the healthiest members of society (which, unfortunately, is in direct contrast to nursing’s current state).
Physiologically, we get a dopamine and serotonin boost when we help others, making us feel good and want to do more. Messages like “I know you’re swamped, but there is no one else to do this” becomes a call to dig deep, and we feel legitimately good about pitching in until the cost of all this sacrifice generates a feeling of resentment. You’re repeatedly asked to do more, to sacrifice other important parts of your life, and then both work and even time doing things for yourself begin to feel more like a chore than pleasure.
The cornerstone of resentment is unfairness. When we are constantly asked to say yes to doing more than seems fair, fight-or-flight triggers flare in our brains. So repeated, reluctant yeses inevitably contribute to nurses feeling spent and burnt out.
As leaders, we often face a double burden of feeling the need to say yes even if we know full well that we should say no, and ask others to do more even when those we lead are being unfairly tasked. This may be one of the primary reasons why so many of our younger colleagues find the idea of a leadership role unpalatable. Certainly, as we assume leadership roles, we agree to serve as servant leaders, but when that contribution cascades into being overburdened and devolves into resentment of team members with an attitude of “I’m giving 100%, why can’t they?” is a sure signal that it is time to back off.
The marker for nurse well-being for all of us is: are we doing what we are doing—whether it is work or activities to keep us well—from a place of making a difference or of obligation? Yes, we all can lean in during tough times and give a bit more than we’d like, but not for endless periods of time.
If you start feeling hints of resentment towards the undeniably crucial work that you do, then it might be time to back off and disconnect.
No amount of yoga can cure that.
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Marla J. Weston, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a registered nurse and former CEO of the American Nurses Association. Currently, she serves as the senior advisor for Practicing Excellence’s Nursing Experience Project (NEP), an app-based skill-building solution created by nurses, for nurses.