Simple ways nurses can practice self-care during a work shift

By Olivia Cox, DNP ‘20, BS ‘11, AGPCNP-C 

The American Nurses Association polled over 183,000 nurses for its Healthy Nurse survey and concluded that there is an urgent need to improve nurses’ health, particularly in the areas of physical activity, nutrition, rest, safety and quality of life. Additionally, 70% of nurses admitted prioritizing the health, safety and wellness of their patients over their own, while 77% reported a “significant level of risk” for stress in the workplace. Stress is a major contributing factor for registered nurse turnover and it is estimated that 17% of RNs in the US will leave their first job within the first year after graduation. RN turnover leads to poorer patient outcomes as skilled caregivers are lost. Moreover, stress and burnout negatively impact the quality of life among nurses, affecting both their physical and mental health. 

The services provided by nurses save lives. We must do all we can to preserve our minds, body and spirits to not only continue our work, but to ensure that we are the best possible versions of ourselves, for ourselves.

Here are five simple ways nurses can practice self-care during a work shift.

1. Start with a plan

As a new nurse, it can be difficult to establish a routine when starting a shift (and an unorganized approach can lead to a disastrous shift). Prioritize your duties. Completing the most crucial tasks first will lend you reassurance and help to decrease work stress and anxiety. Remember to delegate appropriately and go to your colleagues or supervisor early if you need assistance. If you have a colleague that seems to always have things under control, ask them how they manage, as they may be able to give you some insight on how to approach your tasks each shift. 

2. Treat your body well

I was well into my career when a colleague pointed out to me how cigarette smokers never missed a break. The simple statement blew my mind. Use your breaks! After reporting your coverage, use each break allocated to you. Go for a walk or take the stairs to get a quick workout in. Use the restroom. Hydrate with something other than coffee or an energy drink. Eat a healthy meal or snack. Put your feet up for a moment. Call a loved one for a quick chat. Focus on doing something that makes your body feel good at that moment. 

3. Practice mindfulness

It may seem like a stretch for a nurse to practice mindfulness during a shift, however, it doesn’t have to be a long formal process. If I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, I like to use a popular mindfulness exercise known as S.T.O.P. 

  • Stop. Just take a pause, no matter what you’re doing. 
  • Take a breath. Focus solely on your own breathing to bring you back to the current moment.
  • Observe. Acknowledge what is happening, good or bad, inside you or in your physical environment. 
  • Proceed. After briefly checking in with the present moment, continue with whatever it was you were doing.

4. Learn to say “no, thank you.”

Because you’re such a great nurse, many people will have many requests for you. Overtime shifts, committees, councils, special projects, precepting and the list goes on. Although I wouldn’t recommend you go full Bartleby and prefer not to do anything, I encourage you to practice using your voice to advocate for yourself in the same way you advocate for your patients. It’s okay to decline a special request to prioritize yourself. It’s okay to turn down overtime (I assure you the facility will not fall apart in your absence). It’s okay to not volunteer for projects that don’t feed your interests. Politely decline requests that do not align with your self-care and career goals. When you are ready, ask your supervisor how you may be of service, on your terms. 

5. Be kind to yourself.

Lastly, always remember to be kind to yourself. Check in with yourself often. Extend yourself the same care and grace that you extend to your patients. Take care of yourself, first. 

We need you! We appreciate you!

Wishing you a long and healthy career,  
Olivia Cox, DNP '20, AGPCNP-C

Published September 10, 2021