Nurses are no strangers to burnout, fatigue, depression, and a host of other physical and mental issues that can affect how long they stay in their career. Neumann University recently started offering a course on self-care as part of its nursing curriculum to help providers protect themselves from conditions that can reduce their quality of life.
Liz Loeper, assistant nursing professor at Neumann University, created the program specifically for nurses after watching what they had gone through with COVID-19. “There’s so much sorrow and so much struggle. First, you were a hero, then the will of people changed, and they were vilified,” she said.
Loeper was in attendance when Neumann hosted Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD, for a discussion where he addressed the concerns of nurses who want to leave the profession. He said there are currently around 3 million nurses employed in the U.S., but more than half of the medical facilities in the country say they’re experiencing a shortage of 30% to 50% of needed nurses.
Many providers retired early, but the industry is also having trouble maintaining the pipeline of talent for future generations. Whyte noted that around 70,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing programs last year alone.
“The United States will need 203,000 more registered nurses every year through 2025 just to fill the gap,” Whyte said, adding that it’s critical for institutions to focus on how to make the profession more desirable for people to stay and to make it an environment where people can thrive.
“I thought he did a really nice job,” Loeper said of Whyte’s presentation. “He brought up good information but honestly, it’s not new.”
As one of the thought leaders shaping the future of nursing, Loeper said she is focused on helping new nurses cope with the stresses of the job, so they can continue working in the field. She noted that the average age of nurses is now 50.
“We need younger nurses. We need diversity,” Loeper said. “People want to see people who look like them … And you can’t get enough done when there’s not enough nurses … it’s such a great profession but it’s hard.”
When she first became a professor at Neumann in 2009, she said there was no mention of self-care in the curriculum.
“If you can’t take care of yourself, how are you supposed to take care of others?” she asked, adding that the stress can bleed over into a nurse’s personal life, which could negatively affect their intimate relationships.
Loeper makes a point of distinguishing between burnout and compassion fatigue, both common among nurses. She says burnout is more work driven. It’s about trying to do more with less like when you’re short staffed at work or are asked to work on your days off.
“Burnout really has to do with the working environment itself,” Loeper said.
But compassion fatigue is when nurses feel so much sorrow that they start to go numb, thus losing their ability to empathize with their patients.
“Self-care and good boundaries help with both of those issues,” she said, adding that “If you lose that heart, that compassion, people can see that.”
Loeper also warns that self-care can easily become self-indulgent if it gets out of control. She noted T-shirts that read, “All I want to do is drink wine and rescue dogs.” It’s often about balancing our need to unwind with our ability to lead a healthy lifestyle.
“There’s a lot of contingencies on that,” Loeper said. “How much pizza? How much beer?”
A lot of her training is about teaching nurses to recognize when conditions become harmful.
They may also need to reevaluate their personal relationships to see how they are affecting their work-life balance. “During the pandemic, many of our students worked as nurse techs or patient care techs,” Loeper said. “When all the world was turned upside down, many of my students were responsible for watching over siblings.”
She has since started sharing circles in class where nurses are encouraged to talk about the issues they’re facing at the moment. “It was really just giving people a chance to tell your story,” Loeper said.