Nurses, help your patients by helping yourselves

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Marla Weston, Martie Moore
Marla Weston, Martie Moore

Ask any nurse to explain how she consoles a patient going through a difficult diagnosis. Tell her to recap what it took to stabilize a critical patient and keep him comfortable. Ask how she recently saved a patient's life within seconds, and the stories will be endless. Nurses do all of these things masterfully, day in and day out without fail.

But ask them how they took care of themselves in order to meet the demands of their day-to-day. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they eating right? Are they exercising? Do they fully allow themselves to decompress from the emotional strains of their work? You might be shocked by what they say. 

Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of nurses do not properly care for themselves or their own well-being. When we think of the most health-conscious professions, nursing does not readily come to mind. Why is this? As a society, we're used to seeing nurses on the front lines of patient care that we don't often stop to think about the demands the profession has on those in it. It's time we make the health of nurses a priority — the health of our society depends on it.

Today's nurse faces unprecedented demands on the body, both physically and mentally, working up to 12 or more hours a day and juggling innumerable responsibilities in a single shift. Good health, however, is mandatory for a nurse to handle the demands of a profession that requires an ability to manage complex patient care in a dynamic and stressful work environment. 

To the 3.4 million of you working tirelessly throughout the continuum of care, it's time to care for yourself as much as you do for your patients. Taking care of you builds your resilience and allows you to provide your best care. By caring for yourself, you are in fact, doing good by your patients.

The American Nurses Association and Medline are teaming up to shine a national spotlight on nurse health as a critical issue, and offer simple steps for improvement. Through ANA's HealthyNurse initiative, we are asking nurses to make better-for-you decisions when it comes to diet, exercise, stress management, unhealthy habits, such as smoking, and serve as a role model, advocate, and educator for all on how to be healthy.  

Equally important is the support of the healthcare industry. We are asking healthcare facilities, industry influencers and medical suppliers to do their part to support the health of nurses. It's an important call to action that must no longer be overlooked.

Let's start by examining the health, safety and wellness of our nurses, and then discuss how we can all do our part right now.

Defining a ‘healthy nurse'

According to a University of Maryland School of Nursing study published in 2011, "Job Stress and Work Schedules in Relation to Nurse Obesity," about 55% of 2,103 female nurse respondents were either overweight or obese.

Signs of poor health in nurses include:

• Impaired judgment

• Inability to perform physical duties

• Sleepiness

• Lack of focus

• Weight gain

• Weight loss

Fatigue, a persistent problem, has been linked to many ill effects on nurses' own health, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems. Findings from the 2003 Institute of Medicine Report “Keeping Patients Safe: Transforming the Work Environment of Nurses,” point out the relationships between staffing levels, fatigue and patient-related errors.

The American Nurses Association defines a HealthyNurse as one who actively focuses on creating and maintaining a balance and synergy of physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, personal and professional well-being, living life to the fullest.

There are five constructs of the HealthyNurse model: calling to care; priority to self care; opportunity to role model; responsibility to educate; and authority to advocate policy in their work environment, in the community and in their own personal circles. Adherence to each of these constructs enhances the nurse's full capacity to care. We believe that nurses whose practice is characterized by the HealthyNurse constructs can function to their highest potential, personally and professionally.

It's up to all of us

We believe that by improving the health of nurses, we can improve the health for all. We must stop thinking of ourselves last, or not at all. Being healthy is a lifestyle change that is not to be negotiated away in the face of other demands.

Here's how we all must take ownership and play a role:

Nurses: We urge you to take the HealthyNurseTM Health Risk Appraisal. Completely HIPAA-compliant, it allows ANA to assess the state of nurses' health, safety and wellness, and develop more resources to promote healthy behaviors and create healthier work environments. Most importantly, it helps registered nurses to identify their health, safety and wellness risk factors, compare their results to ideal standards and national averages, and access resources through a web wellness portal. Spread the word to your colleagues and refer to the many resources available in the portal and on the ANA's HealthyNurseTM website.

• Ask for the right tools. Talk with leadership about offering products and solutions that address the daily burdens of the profession, such as dry, itchy skin due to constant hand-washing. Propose that your facility look into stronger safe patient-handling solutions, to reduce the risk of back injuries.

• Know your rights. ANA recently released the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements. Nurses have the right to advocate for practices that keep themselves and their patients safe.

Nurse Leadership: If anyone should lead our profession toward a healthier state, it's you. Start by doing one healthy action. When leaders move their well-being to the top of the daily to-do list, they are not only doing what's necessary for themselves, they're communicating a strong message to their teams and organization.

These preventive steps can help you get started:

1. Conduct walking meetings. You'll get more accomplished, and you're moving. 

2. Stretch throughout the day to reduce injuries and increase blood flow to your muscles.

3. Recess! Laughing, playing and relaxing even for just five to 10 minutes prompts better immunity and overall health and well-being. 

4. Paint a wall with chalk paint in areas where only employees walk. Let staff write words of appreciation, draw and express what they appreciate in each other. Encourage art, tic-tac-toe or other fun expressions. Take pictures when the wall is full and feature them in employee communications. An attitude of gratitude does a lot for a leader, organization, and for those who write the note along with the recipients. 

5. Meditate, rest, sleep. Stilling the mind and relaxing the body helps with decision-making, clarity of thinking and response to stressful stimuli. 

Industry partners and experts: Be accountable by creating positive solutions. Keep the caregiver's well-being in mind by offering solutions that reduce the number of steps in a task, thereby reducing their workload. As product and solution developers, you have a responsibility to improve patient care by helping the caregivers perform their very best. Medline is committed to focusing on tools and resources that support practice across the continuum of care.

Let's help nurses by offering tools and resources intuitively designed for them — solutions that help to soothe their dry, damaged hands; that have the ability to reduce back injuries and pain; or help them ease their patients' fears through small comforting products that speak volumes.

Nurses, we've all been there—we've avoided taking care of ourselves, or just figured we'll care for ourselves when we can. And we've all known a nurse who let their health worsen to the point that it affected his or her own abilities to provide care.

Just think of the impact we can make if we advocated for one another.

When nurses take a stance on their health, they can positively impact healthcare for all. If 3.4 million nurses commit to caring for themselves, this will not only translate to improved patient care, but to longer careers in nursing, job satisfaction and personal satisfaction.

Creating healthy nurses ultimately starts with you: What will it take for you to recognize that taking care of yourself first is, indeed, the right thing to do?

Marla J. Weston, PhD, RN, FAAN, is Chief Executive Officer of the American Nurses Association. Martie Moore, RN, MAOM, CPHQ, is Chief Nursing Officer at Medline Industries.



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