A quick Google search for “how to support nurses” reveals an emphasis on recommendations for hospital management on developing structured support for nurses at an organizational level. The search also captures popular articles on how nurses provide support to their patients. Ironically, the query results provide no resources to inform the nurse’s closest support system—families and friends—as well as the general public about what kind of support the nurse really needs and how to better provide it.
I attribute these search results, at least partly, to the fact that we nurses don’t always know how to articulate what we need. Some forms of support, such as treating a nurse to a mani-pedi or a spa day (or a parallel form of relaxation for our male colleagues) are of course always appreciated. But I’m talking about support of a more substantial sort, and this is why:
The reality: Consider the real experience, and thus the real needs, of the nurse.
When I consider the experience of nurses shuttling between full 12-hour shifts immersed in the care of complex and sometimes dying patients and periods of comparatively calm ordinary life with family and friends, I sometimes think of military members who have witnessed the horrors of war and are seeking to reenter “normal” life in a peaceful country. While members of the military experience a level of turmoil that is entirely “other” for a more prolonged span of time before making their reentry, nurses navigate the back and forth between hospital heartache and the everyday norms on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis. Members of both professions sense the experiential gap between their ongoing involvement with intense human vulnerability and other worlds not as overtly exposed to human suffering on a regular basis. This gap presents significant challenges for nurses when it comes to finding the kind of support they need to sustain their own sense of well-being.
The beginning of a solution: Make broader, more courageous space for the nurse’s experience.
Because the experience of a nurse is so unique and the issues can be so heavy, space is needed for processing events and emotions as well as for absorbing the sheer physical toll of the work. Unfortunately, what nurses often do is suppress and/or minimize the events and their related emotions. We do this for a lot of reasons. We want to protect you from the trauma and grief. We want to protect ourselves, too. We don’t know how to navigate the telling of our stories when the telling of our patients’ stories is strictly limited by law. We don’t know if you can meet us where we are. We feel like this is our professional life and it shouldn’t overflow into our personal life. The problem is, it does overflow in one way or another. A job this intense isn’t so easily contained in a separate professional box. For nurses to live healthier, more integrated lives, we need space for our experience, and this is how our friends and family can help.
Make space with your words.
Be mindful of ways your words can make a nurse feel the job is undesirable. These reactions are not helpful for nurses who may be fighting some degree of burnout or at least fatigue.
Please replace “I could never do that job” with “Thank you for doing such challenging and special work.” While nurses understand the former is usually intended as a compliment, it still suggests a strong degree of undesirability in the work of a nurse—this is not encouraging for anyone to hear about their chosen profession.
Please replace “How can you stand working with sick people all the time?” with questions like “What kinds of things have you learned from taking care of people who are sick?” Yes, it’s obviously not easy to work with people who are not well, but can we tell you that it’s also life changing, deeply meaningful, and at times full of beauty unlike anything in the “healthy” world.
Please replace “Why didn’t you just become a doctor?” with “What was it about nursing that drew you into the work over other health care professions?” There are specific reasons we chose and love our job, and we would love to share them with you.