Until we do this, we can't recover from burnout

As a nurse you are likely are exhausted - depleted, disheartened, and needing change but in a lot of ways feeling bound to your work.  It is important, really essential work.  If you’re still wanting to do it, I suspect you are looking for a way to through these beyond challenging times.

I know as a social worker whenever I have felt burned out and dreaming of escape to a simpler life, I longed for a solution.  I was so mad at the system and excepted them to change.  And that wasn’t wrong.  But the thing is, what the system did was out of my control.

As a life-learner dedicated to healing and growth, I knew I needed to figure out how to heal through the tough stuff rather than succumbing to it.  As I dug deep inside myself I found there was one thing I was doing horribly wrong in the system I was in that was making it worse.  And beneath that thing was a core belief, likely a core belief that you as a nurse also hold.

The core belief I held tight to is that I am here to help people and that to really help people I need to put their needs before my own.  In fact, it was so entrenched that my priority list looked something like this:

  1. everyone else’s needs
  2. everyone else’s wants
  3. my needs
  4. maybe someday I’ll get to my wants

Looking at it now in black and white I see how unsustainable that was.  I mean, first of all, it is my life I am living so my needs need to be a priority most of the time.  But even deeper than that, as a healthcare provider wanting to help people, if I always put others first then there is nothing left for myself.  And if there is nothing left for myself I get depleted, resentful, even envious of how nice it must be for them to have free time or be paid well.  I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise, but that didn’t lead to better care for my clients.  In fact, the less I took care of myself, the more they struggled.

Cognitively, you may already know this.  I did too.  We talked about it all the time in grad school, meetings, supervision, consultation, etc.  You can’t serve from and empty cup.  Check.  Got it.  But I didn’t really get it until it was either me giving up a career I loved and worked so hard to get or figuring out how to do something different.

For me, it meant saying “no” to extra clients, to extra responsibilities that weren’t aligned with my passion or in lieu of something else, to phone calls outside of my office hours, to helping every single coworker with every single problem they had.  Working in community mental health with a client base of those with serious and persistent mental illness (and high suicide rates), this wasn’t easy to do.  I worried that my decision would cost somebody their life.  But the thing is, we were understaffed (and underpaid).  So if there weren’t enough people to take on all of those extra things, that wasn’t my fault.  It was the fault of the administration and the way they were running the business.  And truthfully, as long as I was willing to keep doing all of these extras, the data that they look at when making decisions looked like things were going well.  I mean, all of those extra clients were being seen, the extra responsibilities being done, and coworkers needing more supervision getting it - but only because I was choosing to do it.

This was a hard lesson.  I mean, even though it was also true that the system needed to change, my own behavior was a piece of the burnout puzzle and really the only piece I could control.  So, I learned how to say “no” in ways that I would be heard and my “no” would be honored.  I learned how to safe guard my time outside of work.  I learned that it is more important to be respected than to be liked.  And most of all, I learned I can’t save the world.  But I can help some when I am well-rested, have fun in my life, and get in my exercise, healthy eating, meditation, and journaling.  And I can’t do that unless I continue to say “no” to the extras that aren’t my responsibility so I can say “yes” to what is.

Will you join me?


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