Tips for newbie nurses starting during the pandemic

Thank You To All Healthcare Workers

Just wow! Starting any nurse job, any place, any day of the year is full of stress and anxiety.

But if you’re one of the nurses who started amidst the COVID pandemic, your “new kid” experience is all that times two, or four or maybe 100. The hardest-hit are those who work in areas that have been slammed in the pandemic, particularly critical care and home health.

Other newbie nurses may be feeling the extra strain, too. If you’re just getting started, there are ways to cope with the extra challenges. To begin with, recognize that this is, in fact, weird. You’re 100% correct to think this isn’t an ordinary situation for starting nurses—or for anyone.

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Brenda Baker, an Emory University Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing assistant professor, summed the feeling up succinctly. “It’s odd nurses just keep going to work and doing the best they can with what we have and the rules change weekly,” she said. “That alone is stressful.”

To cope, veteran nurses, fellow rookies and a physician burnout coach offered these tips:

Don’t look for a quick solution. “There is no magic pill—pulling out of burnout is an ongoing process of recharging and de-stressing,” was the topline advice from United Kingdom-based ophthalmic surgeon, author and burnout coach Dr. Haidar Al-Hakim. He shared tips for all medical professionals as part of Harvard Medical School’s Learn Forward online community.

Take it seriously. You may be a rookie who’s trying to fit in and be cool, but this is not time to be casual, advised Mitzi DeBusk, a registered nurse who holds a bachelor’s in nursing and works as a consultant for a home health agency in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Wear your protective gear,” she advised. “Please, please keep wearing a mask and gloves, and goggles or a face mask that protects your eyes. Do not hesitate to ask patients and their families about travel, symptoms of the virus or possible exposure.”

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Even though you’re new, you’re essential and may be the only person with COVID knowledge your patients will interact with. Stay confident, she added. “Do not allow anyone, on staff, or among the patients, or in your personal life, to bully you into not taking this seriously,” DeBusk said. “Wash your hands, wash your hands, always wash your hands. Keep your cell phone and personal items locked up when you’re working to avoid contamination that you’re not there to see. Wash your steering wheel before you get out of the car to enter your job, and wash it again when you get in the car to go home. Same with doorknobs.”

Be nice to yourself. “Start by being compassionate with yourself,” said Al-Hakim, who is also the author of a 2017 recharging how-to, “Physician On Fire”. “You are working in unusual circumstances under great stress and palpable fear. You have every right to feel frightened, anxious, and exhausted. You are in no way any weaker or less altruistic by having those feelings. Treat yourself kindly and acknowledge your feelings, don’t be guilty about them.”

Remember why you are a nurse. “Remind yourself why you chose this path,” Al-Hakim added. “We must learn to accept our present for what it is and have faith that everything happens for a reason,” he added.

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Remind yourself of the career positives. It’s a grim consolation in light of the ravages of the pandemic, but new grads may have an edge over aspiring nurses who are still earning their credentials or would like to start. If you’re already out of school, for example, you beat the rush of students vying to get into nursing school in the near future.

Acceptance rates were already competitive, but even more applicants will be turned away from schools this next year. The competition was already fierce, but schools will be even more selective because of an increase in applicants who felt called to action or were inspired by nurses working the pandemic, according to U.S. News and World Report coverage.

Starting a healthcare job during a pandemic also gives you a crash course in the realities of being a nurse on the front lines, if that’s where your first job has landed you. That’s not necessarily fun, but it could give you immediate insight into whether the critical care nurse career paths are a good fit for you, or if you might be happier in a position that’s a bit more removed from the hubbub, like IT or pharmaceutical nursing.

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Of course, those positions might not offer as much pay or job opportunity, but it’s nice to know where you stand as quickly as possible. As recent Simmons University undergraduate nursing grad Aisha Diallo told WBUR in May 2020, “It’s definitely a strange way to enter the field, but also I feel like...I’ve been preparing for this for the last four years, that anything can happen,” Diallo said. “Going into health care, you have to be ready on your feet and take what comes at you.”

Focus on today. “Whatever you are going through shall end, and focusing on the present will give you the chance to be your best self,” Al-Hakim explained. “Try not to think about the following weeks or months to come. Focus on doing the best you can with whatever means you have – now. Don’t stress about things that are out of your control.”

Remember how very important you are. Said DeBusk: “Every day we are learning something new about this virus that has literally turned our world upside down.  Please, please protect yourself and stay safe. Without you, the people who get COVID don’t have a chance.”