If anyone had said to me twelve years ago, that self-care was essential for nurses to look after themselves and to equally manage their work day more effectively I would have probably thought that it was a joke.
Back then, I was working as a clinical manager in a 75 bed Aged Care facility overseeing about 120 staff, running a quality programme, sorting out daily rosters, dealing with patient and family complaints and always interviewing staff in an industry known for it’s high staff turnover.
My understanding of self-care meant that I went to the gym 2-3 times a week where I worked out until it hurt and doing the occasional jog whilst ignoring the chronic ache in my left hip. I ate a lot of carbohydrates especially bread to give me the sugar hit that I needed to get through the day. I always tried to be home by 6-7pm at night to see my husband and sons after working a 10 or 12-hour day. I always vowed to not go into work or answer my work phone on my weekend off which was never successful! Although I always felt tired I continued to push myself in both my work and home life.
When I reflect back I can now see and understand that I was caught up in the “doing” of nursing and that was my priority. There were so many things to do, different hats to wear and never enough time to do it all. This always left me feeling on the back foot. I know that I was totally there for the staff and the patients and I was committed to running a hospital of excellence, but I was not there for me. Taking care of me was always last in line and I never considered there to be another way of being. Completing the physical tasks and ensuring the staff and patients’ needs were met was the highest priority in my working day.
I also now realise that because I had no true sense of valuing myself I needed lots of external accolades to keep me going. I was popular and respected as the hospital had a great reputation. I was often told what a wonderful job I was doing which in a way pushed me on to work even harder. I now know how unsustainable this way of working really was and after nearly burning myself and my family out in that job I decided to resign.
I made a resolve to never work like that again, although at the time I did not fully grasp how I could do things differently in order to achieve this, but I knew that something had to change. I could feel that there was something missing in my life and I was not going to find it whilst on the “doing” trajectory that I was on.
Gradually over the last few years, I have come to feel and understand that when I put myself and my body as first priority, the quality of my nursing care is different and that I am far less tired. I still work long days, but they do not drain me the way they used to. In fact, I am still very busy in my day, but I make sure that when I am with patients and staff I am fully present with them and am focussed on the task we are doing. I ensure that I am not preoccupied thinking about the next thing to do and I now don’t rush from one thing to another. I may not always be able to give everyone lots of time, but I certainly provide a quality “me” in the time I am there.
So, what was the catalyst for change?
• I wanted to resurrect my love and appreciation of nursing which had dimmed in the busyness of my life and the expectations I had put on myself.
• I wanted to be more present with my family and friends, not just to increase the amount of time I spent with them but to deepen and enhance the quality of our communications.
• I wanted to live in a more responsible way as I always felt I was just “getting by”. I felt tired and was overweight and I found myself using and abusing food, especially coffee and chocolate as a form of medication to help me manage the very busy lifestyle I was choosing.
• I was fortunate to be inspired by some of the nurses I worked with and felt a quality of connection they held within themselves and with their patients and I wanted to feel that too. I could also feel the “rush” and stress that I and many nurses carried in our bodies and knew there had to be another way.
Over time and because of my willingness to be more open to a different way to care for myself, changes just started to happen for me:
• I started to be more honest about what was happening with my own body, acknowledging the aches and pains, the fatigue and my general irritability.
• I stopped pushing my body with “hard” exercise and started walking with me on a more regular basis and in a gentler way.
• I began to feel how my body felt when I ate certain foods – some made me feel very heavy and bloated and so as a result my diet changed a lot.
• I started taking more responsibility for how I was at work rather than always blaming the healthcare system itself. For instance, when I get out of my car now and walk into work I consciously feel how I am in my body and acknowledging and valuing what I am bringing into the workplace. For example, if I am feeling out of sorts I nominate this so I can understand why I may be feeling irritable or frustrated. I also acknowledge and appreciate the enjoyment, the care and the attention to detail I bring to my work.
• I acknowledged how important my family are to me and sought to get a better balance in my working and home life.
The changes I have made to care for myself were simple and very gradual and have come about as I learn to appreciate myself and live my life in a more self-loving way. The choices I am making are neither selfish or indulgent; instead they constantly support me to take far better care of myself and this equally flows onto the relationships I have with all of my family, friends, work colleagues and patients.
Now I’m not kidding when I say that my self-care practices have reignited my passion for nursing and support me to manage the ups and downs in all aspects of my life.