I have always found that I take home a bit of my day with me, processing how things went and who I met during my shift. Some days are definitely better than others. It can be emotionally draining work. Although I am a full-time nursing faculty member, I do maintain my practice working per diem on a locked behavioral health unit. The people I see and the stories they tell me of the hardships they have faced are quite humbling. I often re-assess my life based on what I have heard on any given shift.
Keeping the work meaningful
How do I go about my work without burnout? Truth be told, there have been times in my life when I really needed a break from this work. I could feel myself becoming jaded against the very people I was trying to help. Mental health nursing does not involve a lot of thanks from the patients. They are simply trying to make it to the next day, hour or minute. When they are in an acute state of depression or psychosis, they don’t have the energy to focus on anyone but themselves. I have been yelled at, sworn at, grabbed, slapped and had things thrown at me.
But once in a while, there will be the patient who begins to feel better and softly says, “thank you.” Those are the moments I cherish. I don’t do this work for the accolades because if that is what I expected I would be sorely disappointed. I do this work because I like to be in the moment with my patients when they have no one else to support them and listen. A qualitative study by Ward (2011) enlisted 13 female mental health nurses to talk about their experiences in this specialty area. The common thread in this study showed that when these women spoke about job stress it was related to nurse-patient ratios, shift work, and a chaotic environment. They all reported their pride and satisfaction with caring for patients and “being there” (p. 83) with those patients.
When I talk with my patients, I ask about their lives outside of the hospital. I try to learn a bit about them that is not listed in their chart. I want to have a human connection that I can talk about the next time I take care of them. This is especially helpful for gaining a rapport with the patients who are frequently readmitted. It is really nice to be able to ask them about a particular thing in their life and have them be surprised that I remembered that bit of information. It makes them feel good which in turn makes me feel good.