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How practicing daily gratitude can help reduce nurse burnout

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The rewards of practicing gratitude as a nurse seem backward at first glance. The basic concept involves taking time to say simple thank-you’s and be mindful of good fortune, even in a nurse’s chaotic and often harsh job setting. The patients will like that, right? Here’s where the twist comes in: According to both medical and workplace researchers, most of the benefit goes to the person practicing gratitude – and it can even help with the compassion fatigue so common in nursing.

"At the heart of compassion fatigue is a nurse's desire to make a difference, help others, and make a human connection," resilience expert Anne Grady, author of "Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph," explained. "Unfortunately, people don't rise to the level of our intentions. We fall to the level of our habits. If nurses aren't taking time to take care of themselves, and develop a gratitude mindset, they are at risk for burnout, health problems, and worse. Cultivating gratitude has been found to be the number one predictor of well-being, and a strong determinant to resilience."

One confirmation of the benefits of gratitude in stressful work situations comes from a Portland State University study on nurses published in May 2019. It showed "being thanked more often at work predicted better sleep, fewer headaches and healthier eating, because it improved nurses' work satisfaction," according to the study authors.

Co-researcher and business professor David Cadiz expanded on the findings. “Nurses tend to have a thankless job. It’s very physical, and they’re often being screamed at by patients who are at their lowest. When nurses receive gratitude, it boosts them,” he said in a press release in Science Daily.

"This type of study helps us understand how to keep nurses in the workforce in a healthy way. Nurses strongly align their profession with their identity and often look out for patients more than themselves. The gratitude matches up with their identity, gives them satisfaction in a job well done and ultimately increases self-care."

The essential strategy for nurses: "Looking for the good in situations and people," explained Grady. "This helps to offset Mother Nature's negativity bias and primes the brain to find more of those good things. Take time to cultivate and communicate gratitude, look for lessons learned in difficult situations, and savor good moments."

How would this look in practice? Medical doctor Leif Hass relayed a gratitude-laden interaction at a hospital in a science-based podcast co-produced by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX. "Often I'll just start when I talk to people by saying, boy, you must be suffering, and you know, instead of going and saying where's your pain on a scale of one to 10, suffering takes on the emotional part of it. And it gets right to what they may be suffering, not because their foot hurts, but because, they may not get home again... if you just acknowledge their suffering and leave some silence. It's really powerful. It's just like in some really super fundamental 'human beings connecting to human beings' way."

Grady, a self-described "truth bomb dropper" who contributes to Harvard Business Review and is a two-time TEDx speaker, urged nurses to keep building their capacity for gratitude with a "mind over moment" approach. "In each circumstance, ask 'Is the way I am thinking and behaving going to get me the result I want?' If the answer is no, you can change how you are thinking or behaving for a better result."

Cadiz explained further: “The big takeaway: Express gratitude when you see someone doing a good job. A positive feedback loop impacts you and those around you, and can ultimately shape a healthier and happier community.”

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