It has been more than a year since COVID-19 upended our world and plunged nurses and other healthcare professionals into what felt like wartime working conditions. And while across the board conditions have improved somewhat, surges are still happening in places. What’s more, many nurses are finding that pandemic continues to take a toll on their emotional well-being.
That’s why, as organizations prepare to celebrate National Nurses Week (May 6-12, 2021), we need to think beyond the banners, the gifts, the cupcake parties and the well-deserved accolades. Gary R. Simonds, MD, MHCDS, and Wayne M. Sotile, PhD says the best Nurses Day gift we can give our people—and that nurses can give themselves—is a set of tools to help instill the needed resilience to keep going in harsh conditions.
“We’ve spent years studying what makes some workers thrive under extreme stress while others crumble,” says Dr. Sotile, coauthor along with Dr. Simonds of the book Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62218-108-7, $32.00). “What we found is that the ‘thrivers’ are those individuals who instill habits that create a high level of resilience—and this resilience enables them to cope in hard times.”
Drs. Simonds and Sotile say honing those resilience-building habits will not only give nurses a sense of control now, it also sets them up to thrive in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Our major resilience challenges do not come during a crisis; they unfold in the wake of the trauma,” says Dr. Simonds. “But when healthcare workers embrace evidence-based resilience-building habits, they can actually experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ instead.”
If you’re looking for an easy way to remember the fundamentals of resilience-building, the doctors suggest the acronym WIRED:
W—Focus on your personal wellness. This new normal will endure, and your resilience will hinge on your self-care of your mind, body, spirit, and emotions.
I—Solicit input. Learning about your stressors boosts perceived and actual control—two resilience keys.
R—Recognize what is working and what you are proud of, about your team, your organization, your family, and yourself.
E—Do what is needed to boost your efficacy (task-specific self-confidence). We tend to enjoy doing what we are good at doing. The new normal requires learning new skills.
D—Now is the time to heighten dialogue with your team, your leaders, and your loved ones. Broadening and deepening your relationships is the most crucial resilience factor.
Here are a few more specific tips nurses can try:
Take a daily “humanity” break. Take short breaks during your day to focus on positivity, quiet, laughter, fresh air, and humanity. Relax with a cup of hot tea or perhaps a bottle of water and a piece of fresh fruit. Do a 15-minute meditation. Leave the building at lunch for a 20-minute stroll. Sit outdoors and take in the sun and fresh air.
“These are small things nurses too often deny themselves, but they can shift the mood in profound ways,” says Dr. Simonds.
Regularly add to your personal emotional and relationship energy reserves. Store up positive experiences like playing with your child, going on a backyard picnic date with your partner, or watching a funny movie on your day off. That way, the “withdrawals” that come with the constant or emergent stress you are facing won’t “break” your coping abilities.
Debrief the effects of daily “battle.” Instead of putting on a tough face and soldiering on, be open about how you are affected by the painful experiences you’re having every day. Find a trusted colleague, friend, or family member to help you process the feelings of shock, despair, outrage, anger, or guilt that you feel.
Learn to counter stress-generating thought patterns. You may find yourself imagining worst-case scenarios or indulging in catastrophic thoughts, exaggerating, and shaming or blaming yourself or others. This is normal, but such thought patterns can spiral. Check in with yourself frequently. When you catch yourself thinking damaging thoughts, gently stop yourself and choose a healthier thought instead.
Recognize and harvest daily uplifts. Even in the most dismal of circumstances, you can find “uplifts”—happy, reaffirming, exhilarating, peace-restoring events—at work. Notice, savor, and celebrate them. Examples might be when your patient turns a corner, when an anonymous donor buys lunch or dinner for the staff, or when a nurse who came down with symptoms two months ago is able to return to her shift.
“Daily uplifts are always there even when everything seems bleak,” says Dr. Sotile. “The more you look for them, the easier they will be to spot.”
Prioritize healthy habits. No matter how chaotic your work life is right now, it’s crucial to do what’s necessary to stay physically and mentally healthy. (Remember, you are a high performer, like an elite athlete or a special forces military operator, and you have to take care of your body.)
“Try to eat healthfully, focusing on plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” says Dr. Simonds. “Get as much sleep as possible. Hydrate with water. Yes, you’re tired but try to get in a walk on your day off. Our physical and mental health are interconnected—and keeping your immune system strong is more important than ever these days.”
Learn the basics of conflict management. Tensions may overflow during these extreme conditions, but if you are prepared, you can deal with conflicts in a healthy manner. If you suspect someone is upset, deal with it early on so it doesn’t escalate. If an outburst does occur, wait for the anger to calm before responding. Collect your thoughts and emotions and rehearse how you will deal with the conflict. When the time comes, deal with one issue at a time and don’t let your anger about one issue lead you into showering someone with related issues.
Practice attitudes that foster resilience. A positive attitude can make a difference in how you feel. Incorporate these resilience boosters into your own day-to-day medical experience:
- Realistic optimism: This is really hard. But we are going to get through this.
- Wonderment (a.k.a. learning to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways): Healthy babies are being born even in this pandemic. How miraculous that life finds a way.
- Meaning: I am here to help others, and my work really does matter.
Create a schedule you can stick to. In the face of utter chaos, creating a schedule gives you a sense of control and can improve your efficiency and efficacy. Buy a nice planner and break the workday into concentrated bundles of related work. In your off-time schedule, include meals, self-care, exercise, reading, studying, play, chores, intimacy, and sleep. Repeat the mantra, “If it is not planned, it will not likely occur.”
Remind yourself that you have coped with difficult times, losses, and setbacks before. Think of how you handled and ultimately made it through previous challenges. Tell yourself that you will make it through this time as well. This practice stirs your awareness of self-efficacy—task-specific self-confidence—for coping with even novel circumstances.
“Each time you practice these habits, you’re building a foundation of resilience that will serve you for the rest of your career and life,” says Dr. Simonds. “There’s no better Nurses Week gift you can give yourself.”
About the Authors:
Gary R. Simonds, MD, MHCDS, and Wayne M. Sotile, PhD, are coauthors of Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62218-108-7, $32.00), The Thriving Physician: How to Avoid Burnout by Choosing Resilience Throughout Your Medical Career (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-62218-101-8, $32.00), and Building Resilience in Neurosurgical Residents (B Wright Publishing, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-69244-951-6, $24.95).
Dr. Simonds is a former army neurosurgeon who created and ran the neurosurgery department and residency training program at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Carilion Clinic until his retirement last year. He remains a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience.
In addition to an extensive clinical career, he has been intensely invested in the neuroscience education of all levels of learners and the study of socioeconomic factors that impact patient care. Of principal interest throughout his career has been the promotion of wellness in healthcare workers, an interest that led him to a delightful partnership with Wayne Sotile, PhD, a world expert in the field. Dr. Simonds also holds a master’s degree in health care delivery science from Dartmouth College.
Dr. Sotile is the founder of the Sotile Center for Resilience and the Center for Physician Resilience, in Davidson, North Carolina. Of the 45,000 people they have coached or counseled, more than 70 percent have worked in healthcare, including 12,000 physicians. Dr. Sotile is an international thought leader on resilience and work/life balance for busy professionals. He has published widely in the peer-reviewed medical literature and has authored nine books.His work is featured frequently in the national print and television media, and he has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Dateline NBC, and other broadcast programs.
As one of the most sought-after keynote speakers today, Dr. Sotile has delivered more than 9,000 invited addresses and workshops to audiences of high-performing professionals across disciplines. He consults nationally with organizations interested in deepening workforce resilience and leadership passion and effectiveness.
Dr. Sotile earned a BS degree in psychology from Louisiana State University and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of South Carolina. He completed his clinical training in medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.
About the Book:
Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life (Huron|Studer Group Publishing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-62218-108-7, $32.00) is available from major online booksellers and the Huron|Studer Group website.