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Self-Care for Nurses: Strategies for the Modern Nurse

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Jun 30, 2023
A Group of Smiling Nurses Gathered Around a Table.

Self-Care for Nurses: Strategies for the Modern Nurse

The concept of self-care has become mainstream as individuals continue to seek ways to preserve their well-being. In 2021, 75% of those surveyed by the software firm Vagaro agreed that self-care activities could help reduce stress. In addition:

  • 71% said that self-care increased their level of happiness.
  • 67% said that self-care improved their productivity.
  • 64% said that self-care boosted their self-confidence.

Because of the unique professional challenges they face, self-care in the nursing profession is especially important. While nurses perform meaningful and rewarding work that improves people’s lives, they’re also at risk for issues like burnout and compassion fatigue.

Self-care for nurses can help to mitigate the effects of the challenges that nurses confront. It also can enable nurses to provide superior patient care. Anyone who is considering enrolling in an online nursing program in pursuit of a nursing career can benefit from learning about nurse self-care and how it can improve resilience.

Nurse Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

Self-care for nurses is important for a number of reasons, but challenges such as burnout and compassion fatigue stand out as some of the most important issues that self-care can help to address. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted those challenges as the demands on nurses intensified. However, nurse burnout and compassion fatigue in nursing predated the pandemic and have long been critical issues that self-care can help alleviate.

Exploring Nurse Burnout

Descriptions of nurse burnout vary, but a report in the Journal of Caring Sciences defined burnout as a level of exhaustion that nurses feel not just physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and socially. Burnout is the result of job stress that nurses are unable to manage and for which they receive inadequate support. It can reduce nurses’ motivation and impair the quality of care they provide; it can even lead to negative attitudes toward patients and nursing in general.

Prevalence of Nurse Burnout

Burnout in nursing is a significant issue. According to the 2022 National Nursing Workforce Survey, of the registered nurses (RNs) surveyed:

  • Nearly 26% reported feeling burned out every day they were on the job.
  • Almost 20% reported feeling burned out a few times each week.
  • About 10% reported feeling burned out once each week.

Factors That Contribute to Nurse Burnout

A variety of factors can lead to burnout among nurses, including:

  • Working long hours
  • The job’s physical demands
  • Increasing demand for health care due to an aging population
  • Staff shortages

Exploring Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

Self-care is also an important strategy for avoiding compassion fatigue — a decrease in empathy and the ability to stay engaged when offering care. When nurses experience compassion fatigue, their productivity can decline and they may exercise poor judgment; they may even experience symptoms such as headaches, stomach pains, and emotional breakdowns. Compassion fatigue is the result of long-term exposure to situations that are chaotic or stressful and that a nurse lacks the ability to control.

Prevalence of Compassion Fatigue

The incidence of compassion fatigue among nurses can be difficult to measure, but a 2022 estimate in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported that nearly 58% of nurses experience moderate to severe compassion fatigue. Nurses who work in areas such as oncology, psychiatry, pediatrics, emergency care, and intensive care are particularly vulnerable to compassion fatigue.

Factors That Contribute to Compassion Fatigue

Several factors can lead to compassion fatigue, such as:

  • Long-term exposure to traumatic patient experiences
  • Incivility in the workplace
  • Failed resuscitation attempts
  • High patient-to-nurse staffing ratios

How to Create a Nurse Self-Care Plan

Rather than diving into randomly selected self-care activities, nurses should take inventory and identify the types of activities that they might find most useful. Nurses can follow the steps in the nursing process itself to develop a self-care plan. Those steps include:

  • Conducting an assessment. This involves nurses taking an honest look at their physical, spiritual, psychological, social, and emotional needs. Additionally, nurses can consider any deficits they think they may have, priorities that are important to them, and what brings them joy. They should also review any self-care strategies they currently practice and whether they have been helpful.
  • Diagnosing areas to improve. After performing a thorough self-assessment, nurses should focus on specific areas where they would like to grow. Thinking about underlying issues associated with those areas can help nurses pinpoint appropriate self-care activities. Documenting these areas and their underlying issues can also be helpful.
  • Creating a self-care plan comprising interventions that address areas for improvement. In this step, nurses create self-care plans tailored to the areas they would like to improve. Setting both short- and long-term goals can also be helpful. In developing self-care plans, nurses should consider a range of activities that require varying amounts of effort.
  • Implementing the self-care plan. Effectively executing a self-care plan takes dedication. It can be helpful for nurses to be compassionate with themselves and seek support from others who can help them stick to their self-care plans.
  • Evaluating the self-care plan and making adjustments. Nurses should regularly take stock of their self-care plans and evaluate whether those plans are helping. If a particular approach isn’t working, nurses can analyze why and craft alternative approaches to achieve better results.

Nursing Self-Care Strategies for Physical Health

Nurses who identify a need for physical self-care have many options. For example, they can practice several nursing self-care strategies that focus on physical activity, diet, and sleep.

Physical Self-Care Activities

Engaging in physical activity doesn’t require nurses to become elite athletes. One of the most important things for nurses to do is select activities that they enjoy and that elevate their heart rate. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults should strive for a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week; they also should do muscle-strengthening activities twice a week.

Examples of physical activity can include tried-and-true forms of exercise such as running, weightlifting, walking, or swimming. Depending on individual preferences, other forms of exercise may be more appealing, such as:

  • Hiking
  • Yoga
  • Dancing
  • Gardening

Nurse self-care practices that focus on nutrition and hydration can help ensure that nurses have the energy to do their jobs.

While there’s no shortage of advice about proper nutrition, a good place to start is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which offers basic tips such as the following:

  • Fill plates with as much color as possible to maximize intake of minerals, vitamins, and fiber. For example, nurses can toss diced vegetables on many meals or increase their intake of fresh fruit to improve the variety of nutrients on their plates.
  • Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats for heart health. In many recipes, this can mean replacing whole milk with yogurt or avocado or replacing the cheese on top of many dishes with nuts or seeds.
  • Reduce sodium intake to lower the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart attack. For example, instead of flavoring food with salt, nurses can try using lemon juice or fresh herbs.
  • Increase fiber intake for digestive health. Eating vegetables as snacks, whole grain cereal for breakfast, and beans or lentils for lunch or dinner can help boost fiber intake.
  • Try to avoid added sugars that can lead to obesity and diabetes. Corn syrup, dextrose, and fructose are examples of added sugars to avoid. Instead of ingesting food and drinks loaded with added sugars, try drinking water infused with fruit, cut out the flavored syrups at coffee shops, and sweeten cereal or yogurt with fruit.

It’s imperative that nurses also stay hydrated. “Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation,” an initiative of the American Nurses Association Enterprise, recommends that nurses:

  • Avoid waiting until feeling thirsty to hydrate. Nurses need to be proactive when it comes to hydration and drink water regularly.
  • Stick to water for hydration. Water is preferable to other fluids such as coconut water (which has a high amount of potassium) and sports drinks (which can contain high levels of both calories and sugar).
  • Don’t drink excessive amounts of water within a short time frame. Avoid trying to “stock up” by drinking large amounts of water all at once, as this can cause kidney damage and reduce sodium to a dangerous level.

Self-Care Activities Focused on Sleep

Getting proper sleep can be extremely helpful for nurses, but it’s often easier said than done. Self-care practices to help nurses sleep better include:

  • Sticking to a consistent bedtime
  • Turning off screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime
  • Ensuring that the sleeping environment is cool, dark, and comfortable
  • Unwinding before bedtime by reading, stretching, journaling, or using other relaxation techniques
  • Tracking sleep or keeping a sleep diary to monitor sleep

Nursing Self-Care Strategies for Mental Health

Nurses who identify a need for self-care related to their mental health can employ various strategies. Examples of self-care activities for nurses who want to improve their mental health include:

  • Regularly evaluating how they are feeling, and avoiding the inclination to bottle up their feelings
  • Striving to disconnect from work when off the clock or even when taking breaks during a shift
  • Taking advantage of employer-provided assistance programs in areas such as meditation and stress management
  • Seeking opportunities to show gratitude

Positive self-talk is also an important consideration when devising strategies to shore up a nurse’s mental health. For example, nurses can begin each shift with a mental affirmation about having a positive day. They can also practice recognizing negative thoughts and attempting to reframe them in a positive way.

Another critical component of nurse self-care is setting boundaries, which can promote strong mental health. This includes setting boundaries not just at work but also in nurses’ personal lives. Nurses can improve their ability to establish boundaries by:

  • Thinking about how they spend their time and how they might want to change their priorities
  • Informing others about relevant boundaries before they cross them
  • Being direct about boundaries and avoiding the inclination to be vague
  • Politely reminding others about boundaries when they inadvertently cross them
  • Sticking to established boundaries, but also offering information about alternative solutions to address requests that others may make

While practicing self-care on their own can help many nurses improve their mental well-being, they should also consider consulting a mental health professional if they feel overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious on a consistent basis.

Nursing Self-Care to Strengthen Emotional Well-Being

Emotional well-being is an important component of mental health. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes emotional wellness as the ability to handle stress and adapt to difficulties.

Examples of self-care strategies for nurses to improve their emotional well-being include:

  • Identifying emotional triggers and taking action to prevent becoming emotionally overwhelmed
  • Giving themselves permission to feel their emotions but also making an effort to express their emotions in a safe way by, for example, talking with co-workers
  • Seeking training in mindfulness and practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation
  • Practicing mind-body intervention techniques such as yoga, tai chi, or aromatherapy

After an emotion-filled workday, sometimes nurses experience difficulty shifting from “work mode” to their personal lives. It can be challenging for nurses to avoid taking their emotions home with them. The Cleveland Clinic recommends that nurses take certain actions after a shift to help them leave their emotions at work. Those actions include:

  • Reviewing the workday, acknowledging the events that occurred, and intentionally deciding to release further thoughts about those events
  • Reflecting on anything positive that happened during a shift
  • Considering how to support and receive support from nursing colleagues
  • Turning thoughts to home and deliberately shifting the focus to personal life

Technology That Can Support Nurse Self-Care

Nurses can also leverage the power of technology to help them practice self-care.

  • Apps. Several free apps are available that provide reminders about nutrition and hydration, help improve the quality of sleep, help individuals refrain from using alcohol and tobacco, teach people how to meditate, and assist in reducing stress.
  • Fitness trackers, smartwatches, and heart rate straps. These devices can track health and fitness metrics and provide feedback to help individuals work toward personal goals.
  • Devices to aid sleep. White noise machines or machines that play nature sounds can improve some individuals’ sleep.
  • Smart light bulbs. These devices can help to create a calming environment by slowly dimming lights or changing to soothing colors.
  • Smart speakers. Nurses can ask their smart speakers to play guided meditations or other audio to promote relaxation or sleep.
  • Online nursing forums. These forums are a place for nurses to gather and discuss a range of issues with their peers. For example, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses has an online peer support forum where nurses can discuss topics such as self-care and burnout.

Actions Health Care Leaders Can Take to Promote Self-Care for Nurses

Provision 5 of the American Nurses Association’s code of ethics makes it clear that nurse leaders have a responsibility to promote the personal well-being and health of the nurses they oversee. Nurse leaders, as well as others in leadership positions at health care organizations, can promote nurse self-care in a variety of ways. For example, they can take action to improve working conditions by:

  • Advocating for staffing rotations that provide for a reasonable number of patients per nurse
  • Making nurse acuity assignments that are realistic
  • Considering the use of flexible schedules that offer shifts ranging in length from 4 to 12 hours
  • Setting reasonable expectations regarding how often nurses should perform certain actions (such as checking work emails) outside of their regular shifts

Individuals in leadership positions can also help to ensure that nurses receive training and have access to services related to self-care. For instance, they can:

  • Implement self-care awareness training
  • Make mental health screenings available to nurses

When leaders support nurses, they can help reduce stress levels. This support can take many forms, such as:

  • Consistently demonstrating appreciation for the work that nurses do
  • Encouraging behaviors that promote civility and stronger connections among staff
  • Treating nurses fairly and giving them control over their own responsibilities
  • Offering professional development opportunities to improve nurses’ expertise and competence
  • Addressing issues of negativity in the workplace
  • Ensuring that nurses have access to the resources they need to conduct their work in a safe and effective manner

Promoting communication and building trust should also be a priority for health care leaders. They can accomplish this by:

  • Engaging in broad efforts at information sharing
  • Advocating for civil and kind interactions among all staff
  • Steeping in to resolve conflicts as they arise

Additionally, nurse leaders and others in managerial roles should strive to serve as role models for the healthy behaviors they want to promote among nursing staff.

Practicing Self-Care Enables Nurses to Provide the Best Care to Their Patients

Whether exercising, meditating, or getting proper sleep, the self-care activities that nurses perform help them to maintain their mental, emotional, and physical health. Nurse self-care can also have a positive impact on patient outcomes and in maintaining health care organizations’ standards for quality of care.

If you’re seeking to advance your nursing career, consider The University of Tulsa’s online RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program to learn how it can help you achieve your professional goals. With a focus on helping you hone your clinical skills and leadership competencies, the program can serve as the springboard for the next phase of your nursing career.

Recommended Readings

How the Theory of Human Caring Applies to Nursing

What Can You Do With a BSN?

What Is Roy’s Adaptation Model of Nursing?


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American Nurses Association, What Is Nurse Burnout? How to Prevent It

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Self Care Tip Sheet for Nurses

AMN Healthcare, “Healthy Thinking Tips for Nurses: Ways to Keep Your Mind Clear”

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