What Nursing School Did Not Teach Me About Nursing, Part 2: Mentality and Mindset Challenges as a Novice Nurse

Welcome to Part 2 from a series of posts about what I learned as a new nurse and the demands of nursing.

It took a while for me to transition into nursing and adjust to my newfound career and job expectations. After working over eighteen years with the same company in a consumer products/manufacturing setting, I grew accustomed to a certain rhythm in my job as an engineer/scientist. I was a salaried employee in my previous career as an engineer and never needed to clock in or out. Some days could be stressful when I was an engineer, but mainly, I could set my day-to-day schedule. I didn’t have a required shift to start by six or seven each morning. I would have project deadlines to meet, but they didn’t necessarily dictate what I did every hour of each workday. I could go to the bathroom when I pleased or schedule my lunch to eat with friends. I had a lunch squad. If I was behind with my schedule, I could stay late. When I wasn’t periodically supporting shift work in the manufacturing plant, I started my days mostly between 8a and 9a and ended around 6:30p – 8p. Each workday as an engineer, I did not have to consider getting my work assignments from a prior shift, passing work along, getting and giving shift reports, nor did I need someone to take over my work during my bathroom or meal breaks.

I work in a hospital now, so my shifts as a nurse are dictated each day. Sometimes, there’s no time for me to pee, drink, or eat as a nurse. I eventually get to do these things, but not necessarily when I want. Hourly tasks (assessments, med passes, labs, and patient ADLs) dictate each workday. My patients and their needs and orders direct my priorities for each day. I have no lunch squad. I can’t go on meal breaks with my co-workers because they need to cover my patients when I go on break. Sometimes, the charge nurse makes me go on my snack and meal breaks when I am not ready to ensure proper coverage. If I think things are a little slow or I have some downtime, that’s when admission or some unexpected event likely occurs. (This is why you never use the “Q” word – “quiet” – to describe the environment or shift around nurses – you jinx them into having a chaotic shift later).

I’ve learned it’s better to accomplish tasks early rather than on-time because one emergency or tricky issue can cause a delay to an entire planned schedule that was once “on time.” For example, when I was in Med-Surge, I had to do unscheduled sacral wound dressing changes for an incontinent, primarily immobile, continuously stooling patient. Each time I’d get help to turn and lift the patient, clean them, replace their diaper and linens, and do the dressing change, the patient would soil themselves and their new dressing. These kinds of time-consuming, unplanned activities aren’t limited to adult patients. More recently, when I was floating to our Pediatric ward, an ostomy bag for a hyperactive non-compliant preschool patient kept leaking and needed continual replacement. The patient would purposely peel off their ostomy bag and then resist having it changed. Even though the patient was a preschooler, one person needed to help hold down the patient and keep the patient still to allow another person to replace the ostomy bag. Such unplanned activities take time and can cause delays in other scheduled tasks. I was used to addressing shifting priorities and non-compliances as an engineer, but I never had hourly assignments that could jeopardize people’s health if completed late or improperly.

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It was hard for me to account for unexpected, unscheduled tasks as a new grad nurse. It can still be frustrating, but I feel I’m not as flustered, and it doesn’t have to thwart the rest of my day. I have learned to do things as early as possible to leave room for the unexpected. My last NICU preceptor also encouraged me to accomplish tasks as soon as possible to be available to help other nurses. Thankfully, nurses in my department jump in and help one another. However, my preceptor warned they may not be as willing to help me if I’m always busy and unable to help them when they need assistance. As I shared, some activities require coordination of availabilities and assistance from other nurses or nursing attendants. I want to be a team player that others can count on for help. Accomplishing tasks early not only makes my life easier, preparing for the unexpected, but it also allows me to help others with their patients or tasks. However, even when I am able and want to accomplish tasks before they are due, I can’t always do this. For instance, I must still ensure meds are given in an appropriate timeframe and not too early to avoid overdosing patients.

Critical thinking and mental alertness cannot be lax as a nurse. (This is also how I justify my caffeine intake). At best, a nurse’s mistakes may cause inconvenience; at worst, permanent injury or death. Any mistake I made as a process engineer could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it would never cause bodily harm or death. There was a lot of oversight, approvals, and quality control with my work as an engineer. I feel like there are fewer checks and balances for nurses for the tasks they complete.

A nurse performs activities based on orders and nursing judgment. There is no constant oversight or approval process when a nurse administers many medications or completes orders. In contrast to process engineering mistakes, a medication error can kill. Not reporting critical labs or assessment findings can cause delays in treatment or interventions. I can’t consult with a weekly project team if I’m behind on my nursing tasks. I have to figure out who to ask for help to catch up with my work or quickly judge if it’s acceptable to be late, reschedule a task, or if I need to escalate issues. Aside from impacting patient care, nursing mistakes and errors can threaten nursing licenses. When I made mistakes as an engineer, I may have received criticism and a poor performance rating, but I never worried that I’d lose my ability to work as an engineer.

Given the pressure and expectations of nursing, my anxiety levels are higher than when I was an engineer or scientist. Some stress is healthy and helps keep my patients and me safe by forcing me to focus, ask for help, or take time with unfamiliar tasks or medications. However, until I became a nurse, I never realized how common it was for nurses to have or develop hypertension, anxiety, or depression. I’ve heeded the warnings of veteran nurses who advised me not to take overtime if I don’t need it, lest I end up with hypertension, like them.

I did not switch careers only to develop medical issues from my job. It’s one thing to manage high blood pressure, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or major depressive disorder, but it’s another to develop these conditions because of one’s job. Nurses need healthy coping mechanisms, as stated in my last post. I respect that sometimes it’s not enough to have healthy coping mechanisms or rely on comfort wisdom; various conditions require medication. However, Kelsey Rowell, RN Career Coach and founder of @wholelifenurse shared recently on her Instagram, “If your nursing job is requiring you to go on or increase your medication to support your mental health, that is your sign to find a new job, take a break, or do something else.” I wholeheartedly agree with her statement. Since I’ve switched to NICU nursing, my anxiety levels are lower than when I was a Float nurse for adults. Part of that may be due to having more experience or not working the night shift for the moment, but I think my decreased stress is also because NICU nursing is a better fit for me. There are so many opportunities within nursing that if a particular job is causing medical or mental health issues, try changing your nursing job!

What’s also relieved some of the new grad anxiety and pressure is recognizing that nursing is a practice. With more time and experience, I can improve my nursing practice. With more exposure to various units or patients, I learn what I like or dislike about specific nursing roles and can set my boundaries and determine my career goals. With more experience, certain medications or typical treatments will become more familiar. I will more easily recognize the signs or symptoms of conditions I regularly encounter. I can determine which skills are essential to master for various units or roles. (Tip: time management is a critical skill, no matter where you work as a nurse)

I have accepted that I’m imperfect and will make mistakes. Even veteran nurses make mistakes. When making mistakes, it’s essential to be transparent to a charge nurse or provider to correct errors or get help and alignment to move forward. Mistakes can serve as lessons. I’ve made mistakes in my engineering and nursing career that I know I will not make again because I never want to feel as compromised or ashamed as when I made the mistakes.

I want to prevent making mistakes that injure or permanently damage patients. One of my NICU preceptors said to accept that I will make mistakes but to spend time making sure I don’t make medication errors. If I spend more time evaluating an unfamiliar medication, dosage, or route, I accept that I will appear slow because of my uncertainty. I will ask for help or clarification. I will move more slowly and risk falling behind on my tasks rather than harmfully administering medication.

ANY new job or career produces increased stress and mental challenges. Some level of discomfort is healthy and helps us to learn and grow. It takes time to learn the protocols or processes of a new organization or unit. No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Sometimes, you understand how to be more efficient or effective by making mistakes or witnessing them. It takes time to learn who to ask for help, what requires escalation, and the chain of command. Over time, we know the methods of communication our co-workers, bosses, or patients/clients prefer. Skills cannot improve until you’ve practiced and done them many times. Understanding all this and having the mindset that I’m still learning (“I’m developing, not deficient!“) has helped relieve some of my new grad/novice nurse anxiety.

I hope this post gave some insight into the mental challenges of nursing and the mindset one has to have to thrive as a novice nurse. If you have any advice on how to handle the pressures of nursing or the mental challenges, please share! Thanks for reading! My next posts in this novice nurse series will discuss how I address the physical and emotional challenges of being a nurse.

What Nursing School Did Not Teach Me About Nursing, Part 1: Time vs. Energy

Aside from an abundance of job opportunities, one of the things that attracted me to nursing was the schedule. Typically, nurses who work 12-hour shifts in hospitals work only three days a week. It seemed ideal to have four days off weekly to have more time with my family. I felt I could manage to work obligatory weekends and holidays when I already had worked weekends and holidays in my previous career as an engineer. I was used to working 12+ hour days as an engineer and would periodically do shift work, working overnight. When I wasn’t doing shift work, I would work weekdays, but work would follow me home, or I’d be on-call 24/7. I could work long hours and focus my energy on launching a product, completing a project, or passing an audit. I learned how to be a hard worker and resilient to get through challenging work assignments or situations in my previous life as a chemical engineer. However, I don’t think I’ve ever had to work as hard as an engineer on a day-to-day basis as I do each shift as a nurse.

Nursing takes a lot out of me. At the end of a shift, it’s common to be mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I genuinely feel the work and energy required for nursing does not compare to when I was an engineer.

I came across a Business Insider article citing well-paying low-stress jobs. Nursing is nowhere on that list. Is it ironic that chemical engineers top the list at number 2? I chose to leave a relatively low-stress job and transitioned into one of the most stressful professions. Additionally, I became a nurse in the middle of a frickin’ pandemic!

While I do not have to work four days out of a week, it takes a lot more time to recover my energy from working nursing shifts than when I was an engineer. Also, when I worked night shifts as a nurse, the entire next day/night off would be a complete wash – I’d spend my day off napping, recuperating, and re-adjusting to my family’s schedule while still feeling like a zombie. Sometimes I’d need two days before I could feel fully functional and alert during the day and meaningfully interact with my family and friends. Just as I’d start to adjust, I’d have to work a block of night shifts and begin my cycle over again. I’m currently working day shifts, but I sometimes still need a whole day to recuperate after working. I have to be aware of my body’s needs and rest on days off, even when I have every urge to pack my schedule with outings and activities. I want to take advantage of my extra days off but recognize I need to spend some of that time relaxing or recovering. I might have the time to do something, but do I have the energy?

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Admittedly, I never worried about having the energy to do something when I was younger. I kept a packed schedule – even on weeknights after work. (I think I also was more tolerant of toxic relationships and hostile work environments and did not realize how draining those could be). Maybe I seemingly had more energy because I was single and didn’t have family committments or time to devote to a spouse or children. It’s possible I had way more energy – or I just felt that way – because I could sleep in when I needed. (I’m a parent to a kindergartener; it’s been years since I slept in late). Now that I’m older, not getting enough rest impacts me more. Or maybe I’m simply more aware of my body’s needs than when I was younger.

Being self-aware helps me determine how to restore my energy. For instance, I’m an extrovert and need to connect and interact with people for my well-being. My introverted husband needs the opposite. Earlier in our relationship, I realized that going from party to party would make him miserable, while I would be happy and energized from the social interactions. As a result, I’m more selective with our social commitments.

When figuring out what to do on my days off, an essential question is: “Do I have the energy?” If not, what do I need to do to regain my energy? One of the ways I recover is by spending time with friends. I try to include social activities on my weekly calendar, even if it’s over Zoom. I did this throughout my pre-requisites and nursing school as well. Because I’m an extrovert, social interactions are crucial to maintaining my sanity and happiness. I felt dates with my friends or family were especially important during nursing school when my schedule would be packed with classes, clinicals, and studying. These dates could be simple lunch outings, coffee/tea, seeing a movie with my husband, or Zoom calls (critically needed during pandemic surges and lockdowns). I needed to make sure I had something social in my weekly schedule to feel balanced. I mentioned it before in other posts, but it helps to know what brings you comfort. I didn’t learn this in school – time and life experience have taught me “comfort wisdom” (a la Brene Brown). Have you developed healthy coping mechanisms? What do you enjoy as stress relief? Nursing school is stressful, but working as a nurse is even more so. Build a foundation of healthy responses to stress before or during nursing school to combat the stress and anxiety that frequently accompanies working nurses.

While being a nurse can be draining at times, I honestly love it. I can feel tired and overwhelmed, but there are moments where I’m interacting with patients and at peace and content with making a difference in someone’s life. People going into nursing naturally want to help people, but they need to understand how demanding nursing can be. Until I started working as a nurse, I don’t think I realized just how stressful a job nursing could be. Prospective and new nurses need to understand what they can do to protect and restore themselves to continue in this rewarding profession. I have so much to share about this topic that I thought I would make this and the next several posts about addressing the mental, physical, and emotional demands of being a nurse. I want to candidly share what it’s like for me and what I do to try and guard myself against being drained or burnt out. And yes, unfortunately, burnout can happen to early-career nurses, too, not just veteran nurses.

I hope what I’ve shared – and what I plan to share – is helpful and provides some honest insight – see you in my next post on this series!