Monday, March 07, 2016

Is Your Nursing "Check Engine" Light On?

Do you know the check engine light that occasionally (or frequently) makes itself known on your dashboard? That light is generally a warning that something under the hood needs attention (unless it's my truck, and it just comes on whenever it feels like it). So, nurses, how do you know that your personal  check engine light is on and your nursing engine is potentially in danger of overheating?

Unfortunately, our bodies and minds don't have a visual dashboard that we can simply glance at when we get behind the wheel, thus more introspective powers are called for in the absence of a personal check engine light (or until an app is developed that does it for us).

Have You "Checked Out"? 

In the hubbub of 21st-century life and professional nursing, we're constantly deluged by the demands of others, financial pressures, the rigors of our work, the demands of family life, and the ceaseless onslaught of emails, information, news feeds, media, and entertainment. Our jobs in nursing can eat up our energy and attention, and this can lead to problems.

Amidst this cultural, professional, and societal pandemonium, it's pretty easy to lose touch with ourselves, our true desires and motivations, and the things that really light us up.

Thus, to some extent, we check out emotionally and spiritually; even though we're still in the driver's seat of our life, it's common at this juncture to unconsciously switch on the automatic pilot.

Checking In

So, if you're feeling checked out, and your automatic pilot is in more control than you would like, perhaps it's time to do the opposite of checking out; maybe it's time to check in.

Checking in is always one deep, conscious breath away. I'm so often guilty of forgetting about this simple (and very inexpensive) intervention that can accomplish so much on my behalf, and remembering to take a deep cleansing breath can literally be a life-saver.

Meanwhile, checking in about your nutrition, level of hydration, sleep hygiene, and your commitment to your fitness and social life are great measures of how you're caring for yourself. And if you truly check in about such aspects of your health and well-being, what do you feel? How are you really doing?

We also can check in spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and otherwise. We can do this with the help of a trained "mechanic" (a coach, psychotherapist, counselor, faith leader, etc), or with the use of a plethora of tools, classes, teleconferences, workshops, study guides, books, and other opportunities that lend themselves to personal healing and self-improvement.

Your Professional Check Engine Light

If your nursing check engine light is on, you may feel fatigued, overworked, distressed, irritable, or any other number of manifestations.

Truly, noticing your check engine light is a great indicator that burnout may be just around the bend, just like the light on your dashboard is a sign that something is amiss, and you'd better head over to the mechanic before the proverbial feces hits the (automotive) fan.

Your professional check engine light can signal many things, including but not limited to:
  • You're working too many hours
  • You say "yes" to extra shifts that you should probably say "no" to
  • Work is overshadowing your personal life
  •  Perhaps you're working in the wrong environment
  • You're unsupported or not appreciated at work
  • The amount of stress at your workplace is out of control
  • You give more than is healthy for you
  • Your life is out of balance

Ignore At Your Peril

When the check engine light comes on in your car, the natural reaction is to wonder if something's wrong (except, like I mentioned, if you happen to own my truck, and then you ignore it for years on end). We can all acknowledge that the prudent vehicle owner will make an appointment with their mechanic so that the trigger for the light can be assessed; an in most cases, we ignore the light at our peril.

The same goes for your personal check engine light (but noticing that it's on in the first place is, of course, a slightly more subtle process of self-awareness and honesty).

Yes, we ignore our own check engine light at our peril. Sure, if you ignore the one on your vehicle's dashboard (as always, excluding my aforementioned recalcitrant truck), the consequences may be costly in some situations.

And what can the cost of ignoring your own light possibly be? Let me count the ways, since I know from my all too personal experience:
  • Burnout
  • Compassion fatigue
  • Unhappiness at work 
  • Unhappiness at home
  • Stress-related illness
  • Loss of motivation
  • Damaged relationships
  • A stalled career
  • Feeling trapped
  • You name it

An Inner Revolution for Nurse Well-Being

A check engine light is not the end of the world; it's just an indicator. And of course, what you do with that indication is up to you.

In examining your personal life and career, you may notice some signs that your check engine light is indeed on. And in the presence of that light, you can seize the opportunity to plot a course of action that will address the cause(s), all while sparking an inner revolution in the name of health, well-being, and positive change.

Why not pay heed to the warning, sit up and take notice, and then take inspired action to reverse a process that's still within your power to change? Whether you hire a "mechanic" as your guide or assistant is up to you, but the necessity of action is a reality, nonetheless.

So go ahead; check that light, acknowledge that it's real, spark that inner revolution, and begin the new year with a plan. Take your personal and professional lives to the next level of health, and enjoy the (healthy) fruits of your labors.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind and the well-known blog, Digital Doorway.

Keith is co-host of, a wildly popular nursing podcast; he also hosts The Nurse Keith Show, his own podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. Keith is also the resident nursing career expert at

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of "Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century." He has also contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession, and currently writes for MultiViews New Service,, StaffGarden, and Working Nurse Magazine.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse entrepreneur.
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