Registered and Vocational Nurses make up one of the largest groups of employees in the country, but are some of the most stressful jobs one can undertake.  The demand for nurses is also rising rapidly, creating a looming human capital crisis. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing explains:

“The U.S. is projected to experience a shortage of Registered Nurses (RNs) [by 2020] that is expected to intensify as Baby Boomers age and the need for health care grows. Compounding the problem is the fact that nursing schools across the country are struggling to expand capacity to meet the rising demand for care given the national move toward healthcare reform.”

So there’s that. But how stressful is the job really? Just a few things the average nurse has to deal with over the course of a normal day are needle stick injuries, communicable diseases, and translating doctors’ handwriting for proper treatment. If you’re an E.R. nurse in a busy hospital, the risk of assault and similar kinds of workplace injuries increases as well. Many nurses will tell you it’s more than just a job – it’s a career you have to really want or you won’t be happy doing it.

All Work, No Play

It’s unfortunate and ironic then, that since nurses lead such fast-paced and stressful jobs, they oftentimes don’t get the proper recognition or concern over their personal well-being that a lower-stakes work environment offers. Gallup went as far as to point this out specifically in a piece called Often Ignored: Healthcare Employees’ Well-Being, stating:

“Though a great deal of attention is geared toward patients’ well-being, healthcare workers often have limited means to engage in well-being practices of their own. This is particularly worrisome as healthcare employees’ well-being can affect a healthcare organization’s ability to provide the best and safest patient care.”

Even if you’re not in the healthcare industry you should probably be concerned – the labor shortage and high stress facing nurses has the potential to affect the health of all of us down the line. That’s why several thoughtful people are constantly working to figure out how to make things easier for them.

Well-Being Index

Based on this research Gallup created the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a survey they claim is a “comprehensive, definitive source of well-being measurement”. It identifies five “essential elements” to well-being:

  • Purpose – Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social – Having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial – Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community – Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical – Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Measuring these five elements, they created three employee well-being outcomes: thriving, struggling, and suffering. They found that only 34 percent of healthcare workers are “thriving” in three or more elements, leading them to recommend a “Care for the Healthcare Worker” approach to engagement:

“Healthcare workers are notorious for neglecting their own care and not taking time for their own well-being. That’s why [this] approach is essential within healthcare organizations to give workers the energy, focus and adaptability they need to come to work ready to be their best every day.”

They argue that when employees experience high well-being, they are more likely to be resilient and recover from stress more easily, a crucial trait for nurses.

Being Mindful

But how exactly do you increase well-being, among nurses specifically? The Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health gave the answer to that question the old college try, testing the impact of so-called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs, or MBSR, on the stress levels of nurses to great success.

MBSR is not a new method; it was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center back in 1979. It melds elements of mediation and yoga in an eight-week guided regimen designed to combat physical stress levels, and the methods have been shown to reduce dependence on pain-relieving drugs, strengthening the patients’ “natural capacity to actively engage in caring for [themselves].”

The Journal study, carried out in conjunction with UnitedHealth Group, found that MBSR programs considerably lower nurses’ work stress and burnout, while increasing general physical health. They strongly recommend the method for healthcare organizations, since it is low-cost and can be administered easily at work or in the home through online resources.

A Week to Remember

This Nurses Week it’s a good idea for all of us to be mindful of the stresses and rigors nurses face on an average day. There are some 3 million of them currently employed in the U.S., and the happier they are, the healthier we all get.