Once upon a time, I was talking on the phone with a colleague who is not a nurse himself but who interacts with nurses on a regular basis in his professional life. His comments about nurses and their self-care (or lack thereof) were extremely thought-provoking.
Like I’ve said on this blog many times before, nurses are renowned for not taking good care of themselves, ostensibly because they’re so busy taking care of others and living the lives of the saints that they are perceived to be.
Let’s face it. We all know that nurses aren’t saints, while we also acknowledge that many nurses come close to sainthood vis-a-vis their compassion and their seeming ability to give until it hurts — and then give some more, either in their professional roles or in their personal lives.
Getting back to my phone call with my colleague, he told me that a dentist friend of his made an interesting comment about nurses. He said (and I paraphrase):
Nurses are my worst patients. They spend so much time taking care of others that they’re very good at neglecting their own health, especially their teeth! Do nurses floss? I bet that the majority think they’re too busy to take the time!
So, what does this say about nurses? Well, first it says that many nurses potentially have very bad dental hygiene and may be at risk of gingivitis. (Remember the old saying, “You don’t need to floss all of your teeth—only the ones you want to keep.”)
This also tells me that there are non-nurses out there who recognize nurses’ predilection for caring for others while neglecting themselves, and that this self-neglect is not always a mark of sainthood. Did Mother Teresa take the time to floss? That question will need to remain rhetorical. In the time of St. Francis of Assisi, floss had not yet been invented, and we might assume that Francis mostly eschewed the self-indulgence of self-care beyond the very basics. But we’re not St. Francis, are we?
The (Nurse) Gods Must Be Crazy
Whether it’s teeth, lungs, liver, heart, or kidneys, nurses can certainly be neglectful of themselves. Poor dental hygiene, smoking, not enough rest and sleep, poor diet, lack of sleep, alcohol and drug abuse, insufficient hydration — it all adds up to a portrait of a very unhealthy nurse.
We all hear about nurses who don’t have time to drink water or urinate during 12-hour shifts; so, without self-catheterization, a leg bag, and/or a CamelBack water hydration system, it seems many nurses might as well just send out an invitation for the gods of urinary tract infections to have a field day. (And maybe they can place a call to the gods of antibiotics at the same time.)
Heroism, Stoicism or Stupidity?
All joking aside (but it’s so easy to make fun of us nurses, isn’t it?), self-care for nurses is essential yet such uncharted territory for a vast number of hard-working nursing professionals with boots on the ground out there in the world.
Whether the wider culture or our profession’s internal culture is responsible for these images of nurses as self-neglecting saints, we all know that unhealthy nurses can’t really perform all that well in the long run (although running on caffeine and adrenaline may seem heroic).
I’ve personally known a number of nurses who appear to run on fumes most of the time, and I’ve seen some of them crash and burn in ways that were certainly not pretty.
I was myself once a heroic, self-neglecting nurse, and I paid a price (as did my family and loved ones). Eventually, I wised up and got on the self-care bandwagon (with enormous pressure and loving ultimatums from my devoted wife), a wagon upon which I still proudly ride to this day.
Sure, back then I did indeed think of myself as a nurse hero, stoically (or stupidly) crashing through my stressful days with little thought for myself. It was sometimes exhilarating in a sick way — condemning myself to poor self-care in deference to caring for my patients was an extraordinary ego trip that fed some part of myself that was at once stoic, heroic, and stupid.
But that was then, and this is now.
The Self-Care Bandwagon
Whether it’s flossing, jogging, getting some sleep, taking breaks at work, or playing golf every weekend, nurses can take their own self-care into their hands, deciding for themselves that it’s important and healthy to do so.
Nurses can fight the stereotypes, and they can also fight the powers that be (and the dominant nursing culture) that insists that we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of patient care. Such self-sacrifice is old hat, and we 21st-century nurses can teach ourselves that self-care is a good thing, that it’s actually better for patients, and that supporting one another to take care of ourselves makes sense, both in the short term and long term.
If you’re a nurse who has yet to jump on the self-care bandwagon, realize that there are no tolls for climbing aboard, but the price you’ll pay for staying on the Self-Neglect Express is higher than you can ever imagine.
So, instead of trying to be a hero to others through sacrifice, be a hero to yourself through self-care and wellness. Your patients will benefit, your family will benefit, and your happiness, well-being, and quality of life will improve astronomically.
Go ahead, nurses. Take off the hair shirt, put down your cross, and dispose of your bed of nails. The self-care train is always at the station, and all you have to do is climb aboard.
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind NurseKeith.com and the well-known nursing blog, Digital Doorway. Please visit his online platforms and reach out for his support when you need it most.
A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of “Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century,” and has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession. Keith has written for Nurse.com, Nurse.org, MultiViews News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University, the ANA blog, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online publications.
Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives.
Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.