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Nurses: Modernday Martyrs

Updated: Mar 19

We’ve all seen the memes. The ones where they poke fun at nurses going all day without a break. Did you see the one where they ask if a nurse is into intermittent fasting? And the nurse replies that’s just their normal diet when they don’t have time for breaks during their busy, 12-hour shift.


But there’s some bite under that humor. Nurses wear their sacrifice like a badge of honor. Who can work the longest shift? 16 hours? No problem. How many days in a row they can work? 14 days straight, baby!

It becomes this toxic competition over who can endure the most. Who’s the most “nurse” nurse? And for what? What are these nurses getting from it?

High rates of burnout? Missed holidays? Kidney infections from holding their bathroom breaks until way past the point of comfort?

And what are hospitals getting? Larger profit margins? More work horses to keep on going. More time to not deal with the core issues of nursing.

So if the system is pervasively broken, why are we still feeding into this noxious martyrdom? Why does being the most “nurse” nurse matter? Why aren’t we more concerned with making nursing a safer, more sustainable profession?


Let’s go over some of the caveats of this chronic martyrdom mindset that is so prevalent in the nursing community.


Burnout

Burnout is the big one. We all know it. Some of us were taught it in school. Imagine having an occupational mental health hazard that is so pervasive that educators cover it in school. But nothing is done on a systemic level to address staffing ratios, chronic stress, poor pay, or the other contributing factors.


Burnout can happen at any job, but nursing is known for our high burnout rates. About two-thirds of nurses will experience burnout. Two-thirds. Imagine

having two-thirds of an issue affecting a population but still not fixing the root problem.


Addressing burnout begins with knowing what burnout is. It’s caused by chronic stress. Those long hours without breaks under high acuity moments leave you feeling:

  • Depressed

  • Broken

  • Tired

  • Unappreciated


You start to resent your patients, your leaders, and your job. If you feel like burnout may be creeping up on you, say something. Bring it up to your leaders. If they don’t listen, quit.


Life is way too short to be stuck at a job that doesn’t care about you or your mental health. You have options away from the bedside. Use them.


Hunger and Fatigue

When you’re running around with high acuity or high patient loads, you’re usually not in tune with your body. You may struggle to listen to your body's internal cues. Hunger and fatigue usually take a back seat when your adrenaline is pumping.


But by the end of your shift, you’re absolutely pummeled. I know I’ve been so hungry, I’m actually nauseous by the end. And the exhaustion is deep, but at the same time I’m still wired from the adrenaline of running around my shift.


This is when you may start to make mistakes. You may not notice your hunger and exhaustion, but your brain does. It’s not able to run at its best without rest and fuel. And what does that mean?


You may have a hard time reading medications. Is that Valtoco or Vancomycin? Are you about to administer 2.0ml of insulin in that syringe or 0.2mL? Does that order say 0800 or 0600?


Those are some hefty mistakes. And your license and freedom is on the line. Are you willing to take the liability for those hazy moments?


Workplace Injuries

Workplace injuries happen over time or when you’re tired. Those small moments where you think “This isn’t that heavy” or “The bed isn’t that low”. Maybe you don’t cap that used needle right away. Those actions add up.


And it’ll catch up with you. You may not notice it for the first few months, but I’m willing to bet you will in the first 5 years. And if you keep making those choices, you can wind up with some serious injuries down the line:

  • Slipped discs

  • Torn shoulders

  • Accidental needle sticks


If you’re tired, hungry, and overworked, you’re less likely to take the time to

make sure you’re using proper protocol and body mechanics. And you’re the one that’s going to feel it later. It won’t be your healthcare facility.


But nurses get injured. It’s just a part of the job. It means they did their job promptly. They did what they “had to do”. They were martyrs. But who takes care of the martyr when they get injured?


Missing Big Events

The nurse martyr is never there for Christmas. But don’t worry, she wears a Santa hat to her floor, and they exchange gifts. She doesn’t make it for Easter either, but her floor orders her pizza, so she knows they appreciate her being there.


And those little league games she always misses? She’s just doing her duty. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been. She’s a nurse and they’re short staffed. She feels bad. What would they do without her? What would her coworkers do without her?


Well maybe they’d finally hire appropriate staff. We are not responsible for the poor staffing decisions our facilities make.


How to Fix Martyrdom

Nurse Martyrdom is a toxic trait of the nursing industry. We are nurses, not martyrs. Just because we are empathetic healers, it doesn’t mean we need to put up with abuse. And just because it’s common in the industry, doesn’t mean it has to continue.


So what can we do to stop it?


Say No

You don’t have to say yes to those extra shifts or extra patient loads. You’re not an administrator. It’s their job to find sustainable solutions. And putting their problems onto you is not a sustainable solution.

Do not feel bad saying no. This is not your battle. It’s theirs. If enough people say no, they will have to find a better solution than pressuring their current employers into doing something they don’t want to do.

It may feel awkward at first, but you don’t owe them anything outside of your set hours.


Report unsafe moments

Let your managers know any unsafe moments. They may not be aware of how many close calls there are. You’re not tattling. You’re letting them know your honest perspective of the nursing floor when they aren’t able to see it.

And if they don’t listen, go to their boss. Make sure you are valued and heard in your concerns. Put it on paper so there is a paper trail. Email communications

are best. Copy your HR personnel on the email, too. The more people who understand the situation, the better.


Find a way out

There are plenty of nontraditional nursing roles out there where you won’t have to sacrifice yourself for others. Become a health writer, learn to podcast. Sell a digital product. Switch to consulting.

If this industry doesn’t respect you, find one that does.


Take your breaks

You are entitled to your breaks. Find a manager for coverage and let them know you’re taking them. If it’s painful for your manager, fine. Let them know you're hungry and you feel weak. Let them know you got a kidney infection from holding your bladder for too long.


Make them understand how this affects you.


Summary

The nurse martyrdom typecast is toxic and doesn’t serve you. Don’t play into it. No better because she doesn’t take bathroom breaks and misses every holiday. Why would you envy that life?

Speak up about unsafe working conditions. Stop helping management fill their gaps so they never have to hire other support staff. Look for roles where you feel nurtured and supportive. Let’s say goodbye to nursing martyrdom. We are so much better than this. Let’s heal ourselves.


Are you looking for more tips? You can check out my course here.

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