Saturday, December 21, 2013

Of Flu Season and Nurse Martyrs

Nurses are often notorious for being martyrs, caring for others when they really need to be caring for themselves. And when flu season strikes, many nurses may heed the call of duty rather than the call of their own bed.

Yes, it's that time of year again. Even though influenza is a potential problem during any season, the colder months of winter are when it rears its ugly head in earnest. 

Influenza, nasty colds and increased absenteeism often push our profession into a corner during the winter months, with some nurses apparently having no choice but to work under duress, sniffly noses and all. 

How About You? 

Have you, dear Reader, ever needed to work because your supervisor said that you simply couldn't call out, even though you had acute symptoms that truly warranted a day in bed? Have you soldiered your way through a shift, hoping that you wouldn't infect your patients with whatever bug was tenaciously clinging to your inflamed mucous membranes?

We're probably all done it, and some of us have probably even bragged about the fact that we worked a double while battling strep throat and a low-grade fever. 

What Does This Say? 

What does this habit of working even while sick say about us as a profession and as caregivers of the ill? Sure, there's a long history of nurse martyrs heroically sacrificing their own well-being for the sake of their patients (think wartime nursing, Florence Nightingale and other unsung heroes of the profession), but, in the end, are we really doing more harm than good, both to ourselves and those for whom we provide care? 

We are, once again, the profession named #1 on the Gallup Poll as the most honest and ethical among all professions in the United States. This honesty and trustworthiness is apparently not at all undermined by the astronomical numbers of nosocomial infections in American hospitals, but I assume that the public would be aghast at how many nurses lay their hands on ill patients while they themselves are incubating a pesky and transmissible bug.  

Can't We Get A Break? 

Sometimes, it does indeed seem that the earnest but sickly nurse just can't get a break. Calling out sick at work can feel like the Spanish Inquisition, with the people in HR or Scheduling making statements like, "Are you really that sick?", "Well, Suzie's sick and she still came to work,", "Can't you just take some Tylenol?" or "Until you bring in a doctor's note, you can't be put back on the schedule."

We're expected to be supermen and superwomen, capable of leaping tall hospitals in a single bound and serving as Charge as our fever spikes and our throat feels like broken glass. This may seem completely counter-intuitive, but it happens all the time

I'm sure this sounds familiar to many of you. 

Are There Solutions?

The most powerful solution in this particular scenario are personal and professional boundaries. Nurses generally have a hard time saying no when the call for self-sacrifice is issued from on high, but acknowledging our own humanity and frailty is par for the course of self-actualization and improved self-care, even in the face of pressure from HR.

Beyond our own self-care, the logical knowledge that a sick nurse can more easily infect a compromised patient is another factor that should drive our decision-making when it comes to working or not working when ill. We receive such pressure from the outside to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of nursing, but must we also sacrifice our patients' safety and well-being in the interest of our profession's misguided, martyred ego?

Take A Stand

So, dear nurses, take a stand for your own health and for the well-being of your patients. If you're not well, make the intelligent choice to stay in bed, thus preventing the transmission of an errant microbe from your troubled membranes to those of a sick patient. And when your facility's HR or scheduling person sends darts of guilt through the phone in an attempt to pierce your compassionate nurse's heart and wear down your resolve, use that compassion on your own behalf and just say no.

Let's release the image of the nurse martyr, replacing it with a healthier nurse with intact boundaries and increased self-compassion. 

Remember, a healthy, rested nurse is a patient's best asset, and a sickly, burned out nurse is exactly the opposite. Care for others by caring for yourself, and everyone will be much better off in the end.

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