How to maintain a healthy work-life balance as a nurse

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Susannah Bonner of Canton, Georgia, has been a registered home health nurse for three years, but her focus on balancing life and work goes back much further. Graduating nursing school in 1997, she worked in maternal/infant nursing in New Jersey. When she had children, she decided to homeschool for seven years. And though she kept her license active, the total time she spent out of the nursing workforce stretched to 16 years.

"I followed my mom, who's a nurse, and she always said, 'Keep your license active, you never know,'" Bonner remembers with a laugh.

This go-round, she's balancing three kids still at home, two stepkids, a police officer husband of two years and a nursing job she adores. "I love that I can go in and really get to know a person and their whole support system, take as much time as I need to see the full picture," she said.

Sometimes, though, she dwells on the day. "If the (patient's) family is anxious, that might make me feel a little stressed," she said. "Or there might be a situation where the family may not be living in the best conditions. Sometimes I think about that. I always say I wish there was something I could do. That's because I have a nurse's heart. It's my calling."

Bonner does safeguard against work seeping into her home life, however. "I do my best to kind of hang it up when I walk in the door at home," she said. "And I always get out of uniform right away and take 10 minutes to myself. Then I flip on the news and fix dinner. Later, my husband and I watch television. Most recently, it was 'NYPD Blue.'"

The cooking qualifies as relaxation, she added. "I like to cook, especially Mexican, like chicken enchilada casserole. I pin a lot on Pinterest."

Not every nurse can produce a delicious meal to unwind after work, but every nurse requires a balance between work and after-hours life.

If you need a refresher, these tips from Bonner and a few other nurses who are living their best balanced life could help:

Know your limits, even when others don’t

A 1983 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, RN Ann Stinely has 35 years of bedside nursing experience, most recently at a "Cheers, where everybody knows your name" community hospital in North Carolina. "Since I am so experienced and a joy to be with at all times, I could probably work 24 hours a day if it suited me!" she said wryly. "It does not."

Stinely sticks to some pretty strict limits. "My hospital texts me daily with its many staffing needs and I ignore those texts," she added. "Management is responsible for staffing those hours; I am not. Hire more nurses. I have obligatory on-call hours and many mandatory training hours. Maintaining healthy boundaries with work is essential to me to prevent burnout, injury and compassion fatigue."

Take good care of the caregiver

"For my part, the tired cliché of the airplane oxygen mask has held true," Stinely said. "I have to take good care of myself before I can assist others. For me, this means living within my means, staying physically active, eating well, and maintaining a mindful spiritual practice."

Have some space in your life for emotions

Patricia Dewer, a cardiac nurse at Piedmont Atlanta and Piedmont Fayette, once worried that if she followed her father into nursing the sheer emotional demand of the profession would overwhelm her. "Nurses have to work with our hearts, too," she said. "But while you're in the role at work, you have to be guarded or you can't serve your patients. You can't let your patient see you're frustrated or that they're being difficult. They're already feeling bad; they're the ones in the hospital, not you."

To balance those at-work restraints, Dewer makes sure her after-hours pursuits include a healthy dose of activities that are all about experiencing emotions. Her favorite is podcasting as The Honest Nurse, which she says is part art, part therapeutic relief from talking about the challenges of her work (without revealing any patient specifics, of course.)

She also paints, but only when she has a big block of time. "I kind of get sucked into it," she said.

Take a break during your shift

It's a simple concept that's all too often overlooked: To function optimally in any aspect of your life, you need an authentic break on the days you work as a nurse, Stinely noted. "I really believe that every nurse deserves a 30-minute lunch break free of any patient responsibilities," she said. "I also believe that my patients should be cared for during that break."

Make yourself a priority with physical activity

Instead of convincing herself that such balancing strategies as eating right and exercising are a chore, Dewer constantly reminds herself that those are ways she is making herself and her health a priority. "Exercise is really good for me because working as a cardiac nurse can leave you with a lot of pent-up energy," she said. "And exercise is a natural antidepressant."

Even 30 minutes of exercise helps Dewer have more energy for her off hours and feel better for work. "I do better when I take it day by day," she said. "I tell myself, 'I'm going to exercise 20 minutes this morning,' and, boom, I just do it."

Dewer doesn't dwell on long-term goals for physical activity, just that day's push. "There's always going to be a reason why I can't," she added. "If I am able to talk myself out of exercising, that means I have the power to be the one to talk myself into exercising, too."

Read the signs

If all your efforts at life-work balance seem to continually fail and you always dread work, it may be time to consider a new position, Dewer advised. "If it's really that bad, you're feeling that bad every day, that is not the place for you," she said.

“For me, the moment I felt like that, I found a different job,” she said. If you won’t take that step for yourself, consider your patients. “You’re not doing your patients a service by being there when you don’t want to, and eventually you’re going to make a mistake that will be a disservice to your patient,” Dewer added. “The thing is, with nursing being so in demand, no one is forcing you to be where your are. If you are in an environment that doesn’t give you what you need, find one that works for you.”