Top 10 Tips for Nurses to Maintain Work-Life Balance

Three nurse practitioners in training
Three nurse practitioners in training

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Happy National Nurses Month! After over a year of pandemic and pandemic recovery, there is more than enough reason to spend a month celebrating nurses—professionals who have sacrificed their comfort and safety for the wellbeing of others. Nursing is also one of the most stressful professions in the field of healthcare.

Studies show that high stress levels contribute to:

Unmanageable stress not only produces negative effects like poor mental health and increased rates of burnout, it costs the healthcare sector millions of dollars. The average hospital loses $3.6m – $6.1m to bedside RN turnover each year.

Nurses are among the most sought-after professionals in the healthcare industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rise of the aging population results in an increased demand for nurses. Unfortunately, part of the future aging population are current nurses.

Thus, the overall labor force participation rate is expected to decrease from 63.1% to 61.2% from 2019 to 2029. During the same time period, the healthcare and social assistance sector is projected to add more new jobs than any other sector, but nursing school enrollment is not keeping up with the projected demand. Nurses will likely face an increased patient-to-nurse ratio.

These stressors are significant and impactful, but they’re not the whole story. There are practices and coping mechanisms that nurses have found to alleviate some of their stress, which increases their job satisfaction and personal lives as well. In fact, lower stress levels correlate to:

In this article, we’re here to say two things: that the stressors nurses face are unique and significant, and that there are steps to be taken to cultivate better nurse work-life balance, leading to greater joy and peace in the lives of nurses.

That’s a Nurses Month gift that will keep on giving all year long.

What Prevents Nurse Work-Life Balance?

The benefits of work-life balance are well documented. Work-life balance plays a positive role in individual professionals and whole organizations meeting their goals. It also helps organizations recruit and retain great employees. And yet, nurse work-life balance can be a struggle to find. Some of the primary reasons for this struggle include:

  • Chaotic shifts
  • Long hours and overtime
  • Ongoing exposure to trauma and death

Perhaps more than any other reason nurses can’t find work-life balance is their altruistic nature. Nurses often find it hard to say “no” when someone needs their help. This leads to a continual pouring out of heartfelt energy, sometimes leading to compassion fatigue.

Even in high-stress scenarios, fostering a healthy way of life is possible. Here are 10 tips for achieving nurse work-life balance.

 

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Work-Life Balance Tip #1: Accept What You Can’t Change—and Change What You Can

In any job, there will be things you wish you could change. Sometimes you’ll have the power to change those things, often you won’t. But there are still steps you can take to address the things you can’t change.

The first thing you can do is come to terms with your stress. While we often try to convince ourselves otherwise, suppression causes stress to magnify, while acceptance helps it to dissipate. Acknowledge — to yourself, to a trusted loved one, or to a mental health professional — the things you wish you could change and the fact that you can’t. Then, develop coping strategies to address your feelings.

Nurses are often empathetic by nature, and may carry burdens heavily. Consider planning a few times per day to step away, breathe deeply, and reorient your perspective—not away from compassion, but toward expressing it in the ways that you can, rather than feeling responsible for the ways that you can’t.

Aside from accepting things beyond your control, embrace the things within your control–your feelings and attitude in particular. While you want to be perfect in delivering health care services to your patients, mistakes can happen. It is best to pick yourself up, admit your mistakes, and move on.

You can also be an agent of change. Nurses are increasingly recognized as leaders in the workplace. It’s okay to speak up when structures and processes create extra stress for nursing staff. Be proactive in promoting a culture of nurse work-life balance by starting or advocating support groups, collaboratively building healthy frameworks, and developing or identifying helpful resources.

Work-Life Balance Tip #2: Define Your Purpose in Life

Nursing is often viewed as a calling—a driving purpose in your career. At Marymount University, we believe service to others, from a global perspective, is important. Nurses brighten and extend life by helping patients heal in mind, body, and spirit.

Embracing this calling can be overwhelming when it starts to affect other parts of your life. After all, you are not only a nurse. You may also be a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend.

Defining your greater purpose in life will also help you define your career in nursing. By prioritizing what’s most important to you, you’ll be able to choose a nursing path that fits within those priorities. Nursing jobs vary in schedule, environment, and intensity, so considering your whole life context will help you make the best choices.

For example, a mother with young children may need to be more available at home. For her, creating nurse work-life balance may mean a particular work setting choice. In this case, an outpatient clinic will offer a more family-friendly schedule than working night shifts in an emergency room.

Or perhaps you have a passion for underserved communities, and you also have the freedom to travel. That sense of calling and desire can lead you toward jobs in travel nursing, urban health care, or even international aid. Such roles could help you achieve nurse work-life balance by empowering you to pursue personal dreams through your nursing career.

Ask yourself “Who do I want to be?” or “What contributions do I want to make in my lifetime?” Considering these questions within yourself and in conversation with trusted friends and mentors will help you understand what you need to do to achieve your inner goals.

Work-Life Balance Tip #3: Guard Your Emotional Health

As a nurse, you understand caring for the whole person, but do you look out for your own holistic health? If not, then it may be time to move your physical, mental, and emotional health up a few spots on your priority list. In doing so, you will find that you have more energy propelling you not only as you take care of your patients but also as you interact with those you love.

Establishing healthy boundaries is important in keeping yourself grounded and emotionally healthy. When it’s time to leave work, make an intentional decision to disconnect from the stress you’ve carried during the workday. While it’s tempting to replay stressful situations in your mind, turn your attention to other aspects of your life instead.

When you need to process difficult situations in the workplace, find a healthy way to do that. Maybe journaling will allow you to unload and let go. A regular get-together or phone call with a trusted friend, exercise class, or time alloted for a hobby can go a long way in helping you transition from the workday into a time of rest, as well. If you need more help, consider talking with a counselor or finding a support group.

Work-Life Balance Tip #4: Simplify Your Life

Nursing is difficult and hectic enough on its own—but it’s not the only thing you’re doing. Many nurses also care for their children, aging parents or other loved ones. Simplification may seem like a pipe dream, but there are steps you can take toward less chaos and greater peace.

In the workplace, find ways to implement processes that make your job easier. Thanks to technology, you can use apps that can help you monitor and respond to your patients. There are also apps to help you manage your time at work and in your personal life.

Collaborating with your fellow nurses can help all of you simplify systems, share the workload, and experience less stress. By evaluating the specific needs of certain patients, for example, nurses may reallocate tasks and include other health care professionals. Nursing teams may also be able to share information more easily by implementing new records management technology.

Outside the workplace, simplicity can ease pressure and help you clear the clutter from your mind. Maybe it’s time to cut back on extra activities or responsibilities that leave you feeling scattered. Delegating or streamlining tasks frees up your time and also creates nurse work-life balance that produces positive outcomes both personally and professionally.

Work-Life Balance Tip #5: Manage Your Time

Many nurses find it difficult to practice effective time management because they have so many conflicting demands. What’s a nurse to do?

Have a Gathering of the Loved Ones Meeting

Sit down with your family members or roommates to discuss relationship and homelife expectations. If you live alone, consider having a conversation with a friend or two about regular rhythms for your friendships — maybe consider an evening out together once a month or a walk at the park every few Saturdays. Look for areas where you and those you love can more effectively use your time in order to spend time together and focus on the things you each care about most.

Carefully Consider Your Plan

Consider what you may be leaving out of your plan. Are you allowing enough time for your own healthy habits like exercise, hobbies, and sleep? Are you leaving room for unplanned circumstances and opportunities? Tweak your plan as you go and approach it with grace toward yourself.

Set Limits at Work

At work, some situations can be particularly time-intensive because of expectations from the patient or their family. Set limits with patients while still showing empathy. Remember that all of your patients need you, and you’ll have to share your time accordingly. Maybe this means cutting a conversation short while still showing an interest in how a patient is doing, or saying, “I need to step out but I will be back to check on you soon, and we can continue talking about this then.”

Prioritize Your Time

There’s a tendency in nursing to reach to the urgency of the moment, responding to one pressing need after another. It may help to take a timeout to evaluate efficiencies in record-keeping, scheduling tasks, or allocating assignments. Improving systems may take some time initially but eventually, it will create more space in your schedule and life.

Work-Life Balance Tip #6: Deal with Conflicts Immediately

Strains in a relationship—both at work and in your personal life—can drain your time and emotions. Make sure you engage in necessary conversations to resolve conflicts in any work-life relationships. Extending conflict will take up a lot of precious time, so it’s best to deal with it head-on before it gets worse.

Sometimes conflict resolution is as simple as acknowledging the problem and peacefully talking through it. There may be times when you need to take the initiative to apologize or graciously accept an apology. Many conflicts result from misunderstandings, and clearing the air can help everyone gain perspective.

In some cases, you’ll need extra help to resolve a conflict. An unbiased third party may be able to see beyond both sides of the conflict and facilitate mutual understanding.

Sometimes you may do all you can to resolve a conflict, but the other party is unwilling. If so, you may have to simply walk away and let it go. Holding on to resentment or hostility will only make the situation harder for you. Do what you can, and move forward in peace once you’ve done your part.

Work-Life Balance Tip #7: Develop Stronger Relationships

Busy people often struggle with finding the time it takes to establish and nurture relationships. Yet social connections are one of the most important investments you can make when seeking nurse work-life balance.

A proliferation of research supports the idea that healthy relationships promote wellness. A report by Harvard Health Publishing states relationships are as consequential as sleep, nutrition, and the choice not to smoke. The quality of the relationship, as well as the range of connections, are key to forming a support network.

Set regular times to get together with your loved ones to do things you enjoy. It’s not so important that the time is filled with activity, but that you have the chance to connect.

Maybe set your “rest day” as a time for family bonding or connection with friends. If you are too tired to go out, you can spend time at home with your family members by watching movies together, playing board games, or designating a time for a shared meal. You can also have a close friend or two over to catch up on a favorite tv show, grill in the backyard, or get takeout from that place you keep meaning to try. Don’t worry about the excitement or enormity of the plan. The goal is to prioritize restoration and connection, which often comes most naturally when the plan is simple and low-stress.

Small groups such as clubs, community groups, or Bible studies are another way to stay connected with structured support. Regularly scheduled meeting times keep you accountable for getting together. Since groups are also built around a common interest, which can help you connect with others and a greater purpose.

Work-Life Balance Tip #8: Take Restorative Breaks

Just because you are busy taking care of others does not mean you are a low priority. The demands of nursing will wear you down, but self-care can help you recharge, avoid burn-out, and empower you to better care for others.

Time Outs

To maintain nurse work-life balance, create your own downtime at work by taking restorative breaks throughout the day. For instance, before you rush to your next patient, inhale and exhale deeply for a few times in the hallway. A few times a day, take 30 seconds just to drink water or stretch.

Structured Breaks

Don’t skip formal break times. Go outdoors when you can. Slip away for some solitude or use the time to connect with a friend or colleague without talking about work.

During workday breaks, refuel with a healthy snack or meal. If you have time, practice mindfulness like meditation during lunch or when running an errand.

Time Off

Allow yourself time for recreation and hobbies. If you don’t have a regular hobby, maybe it’s time for one. Are there activities you’ve enjoyed in the past—like sports, art, or music—that might enhance your work-life balance?

In her book Rhythms of Renewal, Rebekah Lyons encourages readers to take regular, simple steps to restoration. This may call for taking a walk to relieve brain fog. Or it may mean allowing yourself time to play—the lost-in-the-moment, forget-your-worries kind of play—that rejuvenates you.

Work-Life Balance Tip #9: Engage with Exercise

Nurses may be susceptible to anxiety and depression because of the emotional weight of their jobs. Physical fitness is one of the most powerful ways to fight these risks and foster positive mental health.

A report from Mayo Clinic identifies specific ways that exercise relieves anxiety and depression:

  • Positive coping: Rather than turning to harmful habits like drinking or smoking, exercise is a healthy outlet for taking care of stress.
  • Brain chemistry: Exercising causes your brain to release pleasure-inducing endorphins that make you immediately feel better.
  • Thought patterns: By diverting your mind from negative thoughts, exercise fights against unhealthy mental cycles.

Another benefit is that exercise directly affects disease prevention, mobility, and energy levels. When you feel better physically, you’re more likely to be better emotionally.

The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week for adults. This can be broken into small chunks throughout the week or even during the day.

If exercise is new for you, look for ways to incorporate activity into your day. Go for a 10-minute walk during your break, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

As you move toward more intentional exercise, try something you enjoy, so you’ll be motivated to keep it up. Walking with a friend provides both physical activity and social interaction. Joining a fitness class or recreational sports league offers structure and accountability.

Work-Life Balance Tip #10: Get Enough Rest

As a nurse, you’ll get tired, and a tight schedule or persistent stress could mean sacrificing sleep. Hospital nurses walk up to five miles during a 12-hour shift. Rest is critical to energize and revitalize your body.

Prevention magazine has identified a series of simple ways to promote restful sleep. Here are just a few of the steps:

  • Wake up at a regular time each day
  • Catch morning sunlight
  • Avoid afternoon caffeine
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
  • Unplug from electronic devices early

If you had a stressful day at work, put your mind at ease by focusing on the positive. Instead of mulling over an argument with a colleague, remember the baby you helped deliver. Reflecting on happy moments from your day can help you celebrate your victories and promote a good night’s sleep.

Bonus Tip: Find Greater Self-fulfillment in a Changing World

The COVID-19 pandemic put an enormous burden on nurses as they worked seemingly endless hours in dangerous conditions and witnessed constant trauma. By advancing to leadership in nursing, you can be a part of instituting changes in the healthcare industry that protect and support nurses, raise awareness, and provide education. Pursuing a nursing specialty through an advanced nursing care degree could be your pathway to leadership.

Nurse leaders advocate for positive changes in the profession and healthcare industry, help to implement processes that produce positive patient outcomes, and cultivate improved job quality for themselves and others. By earning a master’s or doctoral degree, you can enhance self-fulfillment as a nurse and lead change for the entire nursing profession.

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