Next time you see a critically ill patient's eyes light up at the sight of a visitor, take a second to marvel at the power of friendship. And then remember that the health value of having friends extends to nurses too.
Research continues to confirm the importance of friendship to lifelong health. A 2016 study in the journal Cancer followed subjects for up to 20 years and found that women with a breast cancer diagnosis were less likely to have a recurrence or to die from cancer if they had strong social ties. And researchers at George Mason University released an analysis of 90,000 post-menopausal women in February 2019 that showed having friends can help a person live longer.
Nurses can certainly tell you how important having friends is for stress relief outside of work and to get through the high-stakes day at work. "This job is demanding at times, and I think it's important to have empathy for your co-workers," say Lois Millsap, a CWOCN at an Emory Hospital outpatient clinic, where she commonly works with 10 other clinic employees. "And it's also important for us to have a life outside of work."
Of course, making the leap from bits of data and theory to tapping the benefits of friendship in real life might take a bit of adjustment. Need to brush up on friendship skills? Or find new ways to connect after a period of not being able to make friendship a priority?
Here are some tips from fellow nurses and other friendship experts:
Cover your co-workers
While one of the first rules of any successful career is "You don't have to like everyone, just be able to work with them," it's important to be friendly to all co-workers, Millsap says. "Being respectful and tuned in is important. It's very good to have open and honest relationships with others at work, particularly around the care that is given to patients" You don't have to be besties like in the 7th grade, but its important to help your co-worker out in a friendly fashion. "Be in tune with what's going on with them that day," Millsap advises. "We're taught to leave our problems at home but sometimes that is unrealistic. As a nurse who works with people, it behooves me to pick up on small nuances, even from co-workers. Maybe you'll get a small indicator that they're not on top of their game that day, so it's important to have their back. Just watching what they need in light of what their job function is, taking a little of the stress off. I think that's one way to define friendship."
Make off-hours friendships all about fun
While she considers her co-workers "friends like family," Melissa Waggoner, BSN, RN, recommends off-hours friendships be all about stress relief. Now a director of surgical services in St. Cloud, Florida, Waggoner has worked in ICU and been part of the Open Heart team in previous positions. She highly recommends adventurous groups for outside-of-work friendships (even if they still end up mostly being nurses!). "Most nurses who have worked critical care are adrenalin junkies, so hiking, ziplining, motorcycling - all those are great ways to make friends outside work."
Pick friends who understand your time constraints
Most all of Millsap's friends, even from her membership at a synagogue, tend to be nurses or other medical professionals. She recommends it. "I think that other nurse friends will understand the time constraints you're dealing with. They can understand that you're having to deal with fatigue and sometimes that end-of-the-day burnout from the stress of the job." And it's easier for her to be friends with people who understand that there are so many things to take care of at home after a 10-12 hour day that you might not have as much time to be with friends.
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