Self-Care for Nurses: How to Prioritize Yourself When Caring for Others

Smiling nurse stands in a medical facility
Smiling nurse stands in a medical facility

COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency, but its broad impact continues to be profound. For nurses whose jobs have always been physically and mentally demanding, the added stress of the pandemic continues to take a toll. A 2023 survey from AMN Healthcare tells the story: challenges in nursing, exacerbated by the pandemic, have led to decreased satisfaction among those in the field. After hovering around 85% for a decade, career satisfaction dropped to 71% in 2023.

Yet the reward that nurses can gain from their efforts is also clear, with Americans consistently reporting their trust in nursing professionals. Nursing has topped Gallup’s list of most trusted professions each year but one since the organization began its survey on the issue in 1993.

To realize the many benefits that a career in nursing can offer while minimizing the impact of the job’s stressors, nurses should emphasize self-care. Self-care for nurses can improve nurses’ physical and mental well-being as well as spiritual and personal growth.

What Is Self-Care? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as an individual’s ability to advance good health and manage healthcare issues, with or without the support of a medical professional. Self-care gives people an active role in ensuring their overall well-being.

 A person’s own core principles determine the kind of self-care they’ll need, with factors including: 

  • Hygiene
  • Nutrition
  • Lifestyle
  • Environment
  • Socioeconomic conditions
  • Self-medication

Why Is Self-Care for Nurses Important? 

The ability to care for one’s own well-being is important in any profession. But in the high-stakes world of nursing, with demanding tasks and unpredictable hours, it’s vital. In fact, the American Nurses Association (ANA) code of ethics for nurses calls for nurses to focus on caring for themselves as well as the patients they assist. A 2020 Nurse Education Today article cites key reasons that self-care for nurses is critical when it comes to:

Facilitating High-Quality Patient Care 

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that nursing is the largest healthcare profession in the United States, emphasizing the importance of the care they provide. To most effectively provide that care, nurses must be healthy physically, mentally and spiritually.

Promoting Resilience During Challenging Times 

Whether facing difficult decisions regarding patient care or uncertainty about global events and their impact on healthcare, nurses need resilience to navigate challenging times. By bolstering their well-being, they can help to ensure that they have the mental strength to manage stressful situations.

Building Healthcare Team Morale

Healthcare teams whose members regularly focus on self-care promote the kind of well-being that encourages strong morale. With 94% of respondents in the 2023 AMN Healthcare survey reporting a severe or moderate nursing shortage in their area, encouraging satisfaction on the job is essential.

What Is Nurse Burnout

While burnout has been a trending topic for the last few years, the term is not new. The term first appeared in the 1970s, when American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe t severe stress in the “helping” professions.

Nurse burnout is what occurs when someone continually sacrifices themselves for others and experiences exhaustion, listlessness and an inability to cope. Its symptoms can include:

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Lack of efficiency in performing tasks
  • Cynicism and lack of investment in tasks performed

During times of great uncertainty, anxiety is likely to occur. Extreme anxiety induces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which activates the body’s fight-flight-freeze response. When stress signals are activated over an extended period, it can lead to chronic physical ailments. 

The physical symptoms of headache, muscle tension, fatigue and sleeplessness can be indicators that a person is carrying too much of a burden. Prolonged stress associated with factors such as tasks and work environment can exacerbate these symptoms. 

Due to their constant exposure to stressors such as long hours and life-or-death situations, nurses and other healthcare professionals often experience burnout. A 2020 American Hospital Association (AHA) survey shows that nearly two-thirds of nurses (62%) suffered from burnout.

5 Tips on Self-Care for Nurses

By taking some important steps that focus on self-care, nurses can help protect their own mental and physical health — and that of their patients. Following are five tips for nurse self-care:

1. Maintain Your Physical Health 

Getting enough sleep, following a nourishing diet and taking mental health breaks when needed can transform an exhausting and overwhelming day into a tolerable one. To practice self-care, nurses should:

  • Drink water frequently during their shift
  • Keep up to date with routine physicals and recommended health screenings
  • Stick to a nourishing diet
  • Exercise several times a week
  • Make rest and sleep a priority
  • Get prompt care for illnesses and injuries

2. Support Your Mental Health 

Maintaining mental health is just as important as maintaining physical health. When people understand that their bodies and minds are deeply interconnected, they are more likely to take ample time to reflect and de-stress. This time could be for:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Playing with children
  • Engaging in hobbies
  • Socializing with colleagues, friends and family
  • Talking to a therapist

3. Remember That No Nurse Is an Island

Connecting with others is one form of self-care. Not only is it helpful for nurses to share their concerns with others, but those discussions also can serve to validate the feelings they are having — and yield some coping suggestions. Here are a few other points to keep in mind:

  • Humans are social beings and require social and emotional support systems.
  • Nurses are caregivers, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive care and support from others.
  • Everyone deserves a social support system that allows them to be vulnerable.
  • Nurses don’t always need to be the hero.
  • Nursing professionals who are feeling overwhelmed can take advantage of employee-assistance resources — such as counseling services — and get professional help.

4. Tend to Your Personal Needs 

It is important for nurses to prioritize their personal needs to ensure they are maintaining healthy boundaries between work and other commitments. Among the ways nurses can focus on their personal needs are:

  • Honoring their commitments to themselves and their families
  • Setting clear boundaries between their personal life and work
  • Making dates with their loved ones and keeping them
  • Doing non-nursing activities that they enjoy
  • Participating in volunteer work
  • Finding a hobby
  • Taking a “me-day,” reading a book and enjoying free time

5. Focus on Spiritual Growth

Humans are spiritual beings. Adding mindfulness, prayer and meditation can be a healthy addition to a balanced life. Faith is what gives us strength in times of weakness — it’s important to nurture it regularly.

Growing spiritually could involve committing to a deeper religious practice or something as simple as practicing gratitude. When people acknowledge the good things in their lives, they often feel more positive overall. Practicing gratitude can also help in improving health, strengthening relationships and managing adversity.

Prioritize Yourself by Pursuing an Advanced Degree 

Nurses deserve continual growth academically, professionally and spiritually. Investing in your nursing career opens the door to more opportunities that offer a healthier work-life balance. Spring Arbor University’s online Master of Science in Nursing degree program is designed to be flexible and serves the unique needs of today’s working nurses.

Gain more control over your work schedule as a nurse practitioner (NP). As an online MSN student at SAU, you’ll receive education and training to prepare you for this advanced nursing profession. The program features:

  • Flexibility through a unique 7-1-7 model and convenient online course structure, so you can continue working while you earn your degree
  • Personal, professional and spiritual growth through an education rooted in Christian philosophy
  • Choice of multiple NP specializations, including Family Nurse Practitioner, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner

Learn more about how SAU’s online MSN program encourages self-care for nurses and can help you achieve your personal and professional goals.